The Fires of Circleview

by Ryan Arey

 

Part 1: Home

Peggy walked to school as fires burned across the morning horizon.

Around her cul-de-sac, neighbors greeted each other as they headed off to work. The Khans, a robust family of eight, had their usual struggles loading their children into the minivan.

Peggy smiled at the perpetual chaos. Two young Khans were slapping each other, one of the teenagers was wailing “Where’s my BAG?” while their toddler halted underfoot and pointed to the distant flames:

“Mommy, look! Pretty!”

“Yes Zoe, the fires are very pretty. Go change your shoes, they don’t match.”

“I don’t want to, these are PRETTY!”

The Khans’ house robot stepped into the yard and brought order to the morning. The metal man was a standard model, with thin arms and legs, box body, and a square head with two small headlights for eyes. It carried the teenager’s bag, Mr. Khan’s wallet, and matching shoes for the little one—all while burping their baby on its shoulder. As the family van pulled away, the robot waved goodbye from the porch.

I wish we had a nice robot like that, Peggy thought. M1KL is just weird.

Earlier, M1KL stared intently at Peggy while she ate her breakfast. Every time she bit her scrambled eggs, white light pulsed from its eyes.

She threw her fork on the plate. “Mom! The robot is watching me again!”

Her father answered from the next room, “Just ask him to stop.”

“Could you please stop watching me, Michael?”

The robot’s eyes flickered yellow and blue as it spoke, “I apologize, Peggy. I was attempting to evaluate the pleasure you felt while masticating eggs–”

“They’re amazing. I love these eggs. They are literally, the most amazing eggs any person has ever had in their mouth. Oh my god, thank you. Now stop looking at me.”

Mom was fiddling with settings on her camera. “Honey, be nice to Michael.”

“Why, Mom? You don’t tell me to be nice to the kettle.”

“No, but manners are free. Nice to robots, nice to people.”

“No one gives a damn if you’re mean to a robot.”

“What’s that language?” Dad shouted from the next room.

“Nothing Dad, Mom just wants me to consider the feelings of inanimate objects.”

“Animate objects, petal,” Dad entered the kitchen, tying his tie. “Inanimate means they don’t move…”

“God, Dad don’t take it personally.”

“…and there’s nothing wrong with him wanting feedback. At work we call that ‘assessment protocol’.”

M1KL’s servos hummed as he nodded; Peggy rolled her eyes and snatched her book from the table.

Mom was waiting with her camera ready. “Oh, my little baby’s last day–”

Peggy walked by her and out the door. Once outside, she felt a heavy thud of guilt. Why take that moment from her? You’re just shitty sometimes.

When she arrived at Bonnie’s house, she decided it was best to wait outside. Otherwise, her best friend’s parents would babble on about “their big last day.”

God, Bonnie, you’re taking forever.

Down the block, a pair of robots were hanging a banner across the street:

CIRCLEVIEW 2.0 COMING SOON!

About time, they’ve been saying that forever.

Across the street, Mr. Eubanks was pushing his silent lawn mower across his tiny yard. Spotting Peggy, he fluttered his fingers in a wave.

“Eww god, are you flirting with Mr. Eubanks?” Bonnie called out to her.

“Gross! Let’s go.” They walked away, but Peggy could feel Mr. Eubanks’ eyes. “He’s so creepy.”

“Why? I think he’s nice.”

“It’s like, ‘stop pushing your mower when it’s not even on.”’

“So, he likes to mow.”

“Bonnie, he does it to perv.”

“Maybe he just likes his routine.”

“Well the grass is made of plastic and can’t grow, so he should perv from the porch.”

“Really? It smells real.” Bonnie changed the subject, “Sooo… your parents make a big fuss today?”

“Ugh, my mom tried. Cringe. Yours?”

“Yeah, it was kinda sweet. SH3RYL took some photos of us, and they made me a cute little card.”

“You’re lucky. All my robot does is audit me.” She pushed her nose into Bonnie’s cheek and spoke in a robotic voice, “Are you enjoying your eggs, Peggy? My sensors indicate you are beginning your period in 5, 4, 3…”

Bonnie laughed. “Why do you still have your book? Are you actually going to class on the last day?”

“Nooooo. I forgot to return it. Then I have to get my career passport and letter of rec from Mrs. Nestor… and-I-AM-OUT. My last day of work study, too.”

“God you’re so lucky, you’re going to be set.”

“It kinda sucks there.”

“I thought you wanted to work in renovation?”

“Reno’s okay. Seemed better when Dad talked about it.” She stamped her feet like they each weighed a hundred pounds, “It’s… just… so… BORING.”

Bonnie shrugged, “I wouldn’t mind it. Make good money, at least. Save up, get a house. Take vacations to the beach.”

“Screw that! I want to live at the beach.”

Bonnie cocked her head forty-five degrees. “I never thought of doing that.”

“Well, yeah, if the fires don’t go out we’ll all be living by the water anyways.”

“I never thought of that either.”

A crossing guard stopped them and waved on a school bus. A pool of kindergarteners accumulated around them.

“The fires are pretty today, huh?” Bonnie asked.

Peggy noticed a little boy, with his finger in his nose. Not picking his nose, but resting his finger inside his nostril, like it had burrowed inside for safety.

“Hey, kid!” The boy looked at her with dim eyes. She made a corkscrew gesture with her finger, “Poop or got off the potty.” The child withdrew the little trooper from his nostril.

“Do you think they’re getting dimmer?”

“What?”

“The fires.”

Peggy looked at the pulsating red and yellow horizon, and shrugged. “Maybe.”

“I think they’re getting dimmer. Oh, there’s Brad.” Bonnie’s boyfriend was hanging by the school entrance. “BRAD!” she bellowed, straight into Peggy’s ear.

They locked eyes and he waved. Bonnie bit her lower lip. “God, I am attracted to that boy.”

Peggy laughed and said in her robot voice: “I am pleased you have found your mate.”

Bonnie laughed, too. “We’ll see you after work?”

“You bet.”

They hugged. “Have a good last day ‘Margaret’.”

“You too ‘Bonita’.” Bonnie joined Brad, and they kissed. Their eyes shined for one another while Peggy watched, alone.

 

Part 2: School

Peggy lingered outside the school’s office, wondering if she should sign in. As of today she wasn’t a student, and all visitors had to wear a name badge. She’d been an office helper for the whole of her senior year, and the secretaries fawned over her. She could see the scene unfold:

Peggy walks into the office, drops the purse from her shoulder and says, “I wasn’t sure if I should sign in, since I’m technically not a student.” Then Norma, Naomi, and Denise would giggle at her sweetnesss. Sweet Peggy, always wanting to do the right thing, “Oh well, I guess we should sign you in then, how do you spell your name? Oh just kidding dear heart, here’s your name tag. We’re going to miss you.” Then there would be a chorus of goodbyes, like trying to clink every last person’s glass at the end of a toast. “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.”

Clink-clink-clink. Fake-fake-fake.

I’ve had enough of fake.

She proceeded—without a hall pass. I dare a janitor to start something. She knocked once on Mrs. Nestor’s door and stepped inside.

“Hi Mrs. Nestor, sorry, I’m here to pick up my career passport.”

Two dozen ninth graders turned to look at her. Mrs. Nestor scowled. “You’re interrupting Brian’s presentation. Take a seat and wait your turn.”

“I just wanted–”

“I understand. Please take a seat.”

Peggy sighed at the top of her lungs and threw herself into an empty seat. Up front, the kid’s report trembled in his hands as he read aloud:

“And then it got hot. So super hot that everyplace in America was almost gone and people went away from Circleview. It was bad and a lot of people died. Our robots helped the people carry stuff and when some of the people died the robots came back home with our stuff.

“And when everything cooled down Americans left Canada and came back home to build a wall to keep the fires out because we are smart. That is how we are home now, here at home, at home now, breathing the air once again today. This is the end.”

I don’t know kid. Sounds like robots did the heavy lifting. But way to run up the word count at the end.

Mrs. Nestor stood up. “Thank you, Brian.” The class applauded.

“And we’re almost done for the year. I know that every other classroom is watching a movie right now, but not you. Why is that? Why did I make you write a report when your grades are already marked down?” She waited. Mrs. Nestor always made her class answer rhetorical questions.

A spotted boy raised his hand, “Because you’re a hard butt?”

The class chuckled, and Mrs. Nestor smiled. “Well there is that. Why else?”

The same boy answered again, “Because…” He pointed to a sign on the wall and the class read it as a chorus:

“HISTORY–IS–HAPPENING!”

“YES!” Mrs. Nestor stamped her foot and pointed at the boy, as she always did when a student impressed her. When Peggy was a freshman, getting a point and stamp was a thrill. Today, she rolled her eyes. As Mrs. Nestor’s teaching assistant, she had seen many… many… many point and stamps.

“We’ve discussed empires and frontiers, wars and heroes, genocide and saviors… and you take your little quizzes…”

Oh, now the hardest tests in school are “little quizzes.” Right.

The bell rang, but she motioned for the students to stay still and made eye contact with Peggy.

“But there is no quiz because you ARE the quiz. The human race was nearly extinct. If it weren’t for the bravery of those late age pioneers, we would be dead. Our cities would have burned to ash, our robots buried in the cinders. But we beat it, didn’t we?”

A student pumped his fist in the air, “That’s right!” A few kids clapped.

“People came back, and we’re rebuilding Circleview, breathing the air again. You have a lot to be proud of. Be proud to be part of the clever human race. People who faced the fires of extinction and said ‘not today.’ Be proud to be Americans who love democracy, and be proud to be from Circleview. This is your time now, to be learners, builders, helpers… to imagine history into existence. Thank you all for your time with me this year. Go make yourselves proud.”

The kids applauded again, and Mrs. Nestor gave them a demure smile. As the kids filed past Peggy, their eyes sparkled with inspiration.

Mrs. Nestor folded her hands in front of her and smiled at Peggy. “I haven’t seen many seniors today. Having a hard time letting go?”

“Sure. I miss getting to hear that exact same lecture every day.”

Mrs. Nestor leveled her gaze. “Is that a sassy compliment or a complement of sass?”

Peggy grinned off her remark. “Yeah, sorry. It’s my last day of work study. I don’t want to be late.” For once, Peggy was grateful for her work study job. It was a good excuse to leave as soon as possible.

“Well then.” Mrs. Nestor opened her desk drawer. “Let me know if you ever need this customized. My address and phone are on the letterhead.” Mrs. Nestor handed over the red career passport folder. “And so it ends.”

Peggy looked down at the red folder in her hands. All formal business between them was done. “Thank you.”

“Do you know what you want to do? Work with your father, I expect.”

“I don’t know. Something. Maybe live near water.”

Mrs. Nestor’s face bent into a frown, and she cocked her head forty-five degrees. “Why, you can’t do that. Don’t waste your talent.” She placed a hand on Peggy’s shoulder. Her breath smelled like mint. “You’re going to do just wonderful Peggy. I’ve always known you would do something big, and I can’t wait to see what that is. You’ll do things we could never… you can’t even see how possible you are.”

“How possible?” Peggy smiled at the unusual word choice.

Mrs. Nestor wiped a tear from her eye. “Yes. How possible.”

“I don’t…” Peggy searched for the right words. “Thank you. Thank you.”

The two women hugged.

Peggy left, tasting the air of the empty hallway. For the first time in her life, she stood in school and didn’t have to be anywhere. She could explore. I’m off the grid!

The school was still being renovated, and most hallways were off-limits. I’ve never been to the other side of the school, because it’s against the rules. “Well, where are your rules now?”

She journeyed to the school’s abandoned wing. Normally the fire doors would be shut, but today they were propped open by a robot work team. A half-dozen lanky metal men stood on ladders, attaching CCTV cameras to the walls.

Renovations were moving down the long hallway, inch by inch. For the first twenty feet or so, the corridor was in pristine shape. The floor tile shined, the paint was fresh, the lockers glistened. But abruptly, the renovations stopped. Past some invisible line, the lockers were unhinged and bent, the paint peeled from grey stone, the floor blanketed with ash. It was like looking through a time portal, seeing the school on its first and last days of existence. The sight made her a little sad. The broken end of the hallway had a story to tell: “the fall of Circleview High.” The renovations were erasing that story, preparing the hall for the next generation.

The robots’ manager, a portly human, was reclined in a chair, eyes shut. “Hey! Is that guy dead?” The robots looked at her. A deep snore bellowed from the dead man, and the robots slammed the door in her face.

That was weird. She looked around. “Anyone else see that?”

She was alone. And she was still holding her history book.

“Damn it.” I hate re-goodbyes. She could just leave the book, but it had her name inside it. What would people think if Peggy Madison left her textbook on the floor? The scandal!

She returned to Mrs. Nestor’s class, thinking it might be nice to chat with her former teacher during her planning period. Peer to peer. The door was ajar, and Mrs. Nestor was talking to a boy from her class. Her hand was on his shoulder, and Peggy clearly heard the words, “Henry, you have no idea how… how possible you are.”

You. Freaking. Skank. Peggy tossed the book across a desk and it spun onto the floor, its pages flailing open. Mrs. Nestor and Henry looked stunned. Peggy gave them the finger and went to work.

 

Part 3: Work

Peggy’s work-study program was in the Office of Robot Care, Logistical Analysis Division. Her father, Norman Madison, was Division Supervisor of Logistical Strategy. The way he explained his job: “I tell them where to fix and what to nix.”

The way Peggy explained her job: “If I still work here in twenty years, please blow my brains out onto this desk.” She and her the other condemned worked in a bullpen of cubicles, divided by thin fences of canvas and tin. Her narrow desk barely fit the foot-tall stack of papers on her left and the five separate trays on her right. To rebuild Circleview, citizens requested renovations by filing Request Form IO-1220. Peggy used a list of forty criteria to determine if the request would be filed as a Priority 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. She wasn’t allowed to use her personal discretion; the forty criteria overruled all judgment. It was the sort of work that would eventually be done by a computer, once enough computers were rebuilt.

The Barclay family, who lived a few doors down from Peggy, had a faulty solar panel on the southwest side of their roof. A private residential request would normally drift into the Priority 4 box, but because this one was related to the electrical grid it became a Priority 2. A request to refill fire extinguishers in the hospital would have been Priority 1, like all requests related to extinguishing fires. If there was a “One Sheet,” she got to ring a bell. An office page would collect the paper and the request would be executed the same day. The Priority 5 sheets would be processed sometime in the next couple of months.

“How’s it going, Peggy?”

Darlene, her shift supervisor, loomed over her desk, holding a cupcake on a plate. She was a heavy woman, who challenged the hems of her plain grey pantsuit. Her mouth was fixed into a fake smile. Peggy saw a lot of fake smiles. She was the boss’s daughter.

“Oh, it’s going.”

“Had a lot of Ones today?”

“No, never have. Lots of Twos. Mostly Threes and Fours.”

“Well, that’s how it should be. You know, one time, in the early days, I had five One Sheets… in a row.”

Peggy fixed her own fake smile. Darlene often trumpeted this epic in the break room.

“No!”

“Five One Sheets… in a row. I couldn’t believe it. Even had my shift supervisor check my work. Thought it had to be a mistake. And do you know who that shift supervisor was?

My dad. “No, who?”

“Your dad. So be patient. You’ve got a big future ahead of you. Here.” She placed the cupcake in the center of Peggy’s desk. “Congratulations on graduating.”

“Thank you so much.” As Darlene walked away, her wide thighs rubbed together like squeaky door hinges. Peggy exiled the cupcake to the farthest corner of her desk, behind the stack of intake papers.

Time passed. Peggy didn’t look at the clock. She arrived at 10, and she was done at 4. It’s definitely not time to leave yet, but it’s probably close to lunch time. It’s at least 11. It feels like 11. At 11 I’ll go to the bathroom. Then have some tea.

Stretch that ten-minute break into fifteen minutes. Then it will be 11:15, practically lunchtime. I can stretch lunch to 1:15, if I’m careful about it. Then after lunch I can stretch every break a bit, then it’s only two hours and forty-five minutes till the end of day. How many forms have I done? Feels like forty. That’s about an hour’s worth of forms, so it’s probably 11:00 by now. She looked at the clock.

It was 10:25. I hope the fires come. I hope they come and burn this whole goddam building down.

A shlubby man, maybe named Dave, was standing by the printer, about five cubicles from Peggy. “Maybe Dave” eyeballed the display. The printer beeped. Maybe Dave sighed. Opened the paper tray, removed a jam, threw the paper into the recycling. Closed the tray. The printer beeped. Dave sighed. Opened the paper tray, removed a jam…

He’s been doing that since I got here.

“Well, hey there, Norman!”

“Hi, Norman!”

“How’s it going, boss?”

Her father was walking the floor. When she started this job, she thought her dad was popular. Now she knew better. Every “hey boss” was a fake gesture from a fake person. Not that people hated him, but they weren’t that glad to see him.

She was glad to see him though, and loudly whispered: “Dad, hey… Dad!”

“Well, hey there, petal,” he leaned on her cubicle wall. “Have any Ones today?”

“No, just twos and threes.”

“Well hang in there.” He started to walk away.

“Wait… are you going to a meeting right now?”

“Yes, with L & P.”

“Can you take me with you?”

“Take you?”

“Yeah, as like… your assistant or something?”

“But I have an assista–”

“Daa-aad, how am I supposed to learn how this place works if I’m in a cubicle all day? I don’t want to rate sheets for the rest of my life, I want to be like you.”

Her dad looked into the distance, as if God struck him with a revelation. A smile broadened on his face. “Oh my god.”

“What?”

“I got it. The perfect idea. Sweety, yes, you should come to the meeting with me.”

She stood up. “Really?”

“Absolutely. I’m putting you in charge of robots. In fact, you can have my job. I work for you now.”

“Dad… stop…” She sat back down.

“No seriously.” He waved his arms to encompass the office, “All of this is yours now!”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine.”

He touched the top of her hand. “Sorry, petal. You have to pay your dues, like everyone else. Set a goal for yourself. Don’t take lunch till you find a One Sheet.”

Peggy took a drink of her cold tea and went to work. Stop checking the clock. That never works. Head down, next paper. Head down, next paper.

Time passed.

She processed a Priority One Sheet. It took her a moment to realize the magnitude of the event. It was her first One Sheet. Her heart skipped as she ran to the bell and yanked its cord. It rang throughout the office, but no one answered. No one cheered. No one was here.

The clock read 12:15. Everyone must be at lunch. Finally! She headed for the breakroom.

The lights were off. The office was empty. Is it a half day? Or a holiday? She looked at the red sky outside. Was there an emergency and they forgot me?

She flipped on the lights and the break room erupted with people and noise and colors. “Congratulations!” bellowed everyone.

A banner was strung from the ceiling: “HAPPY GRADUATION!” Everyone was laughing; her father hugged her.

“I told you it would work!” Darlene cooed. “I put that One in her stack at just the right spot, so I did, I did. I did.”

“Sorry about the deception, petal,” her dad kissed her cheek. “We wanted to surprise you.”

“To Conference Room One!” Conference Room One was the biggest space in the office, where they usually had parties. Everyone gathered around a large cake with icing that spelled out: “We Are Proud of Peggy.”

An office robot began cutting the cake into mathematically precise portions. Another played the song “Brick House” from its chest and projected disco lights from its eyes.

Everyone split into small groups to chat. Peggy steeled herself for what was to come: the same conversation, over and over.

“Well, hey there, Peggy! What are you going to school for?”

“I’m not sure yet. Maybe Business. Or Communications.”

“Well, hey there, Peggy, are you leaving us?”

“Oh, I’ll keep working through the summer. Maybe here. Save up money for school.”

“Well, hey there Peggy, what are you going to major in?”

“I’m not sure yet. Maybe Business. Or Communications.”

“What’s next for you, Peggy?”

“Hard to say. I love Circleview, but someday I’d like to live near water.”

“Peggy, have you thought about your major?”

“I’m not sure yet. Maybe Business. Or Communications.”

“Well, we’ll need Business after Circleview 2.0 launches.”

“That’s right, there’s going to be so many changes.”

“It’s like getting our old lives back.”

“How about you Peggy, you excited?”

“Oh yeah. You bet.”

“I envy you. It’ll be a great time to start a family.”

“Oh… I don’t…”

“Well, there’s no reason to wait, after you find that special someone.”

“Things are only getting better you know.”

Mary Hoop, who was seven months pregnant, rubbed tight circles on her belly, “I’m looking forward to having a grocery store again. No more of the same old rations.”

“I hope it’s finished in time for my son’s graduation party. Oh Peggy, do you know him? His name’s Henry. Very handsome boy.”

“Excuse me.” Peggy drifted over to a tight cluster of whispering people. She lingered on their outskirts.

Darlene spoke in a low voice: “Well, you know why we have to give out so many fours and fives, it’s because the robots aren’t good enough. They can’t process all the repairs. They need better robots before they can open up the whole town.”

“We need more robots. The first thing they do is build bot factories, but I never see any new models, do you?”

“If you ask me, they should be giving us more than one paint. Why does everything have to be white?”

“Why do all the new cars have to be the same?”

Darlene spoke even lower than before: “Well that’s Norm Madison for you, he’s too–”

Peggy was creeping away when Darlene noticed her. “Well, hi there, Peggy!”

Their faces expanded with chipper smiles: “Oh, hi Peggy—Hello Peggy—Hi there.”

Darlene affixed a smile to her face: “How long ya’ been there, Peggy?”

“Don’t worry,” Peggy leaned in with a wink: “Dad can be a pain in the You-Know-What at home too.”

They made Os with their lips and covered their mouths. Now I’m a co-conspirator. Finally—and on my last day—I’m part of the tribe.

“Well,” she whispered, “He’s a great boss to us…”

“But sometimes he forgets that there are real people who need attention, not just…”

“…not just inanimate objects.”

Peggy corrected: “Animate objects.”

“Exactly!” They smiled at her. “But I bet he’s just the best dad.”

“He likes… model trains.” She looked across the office to her father, standing by upper management. He was a good man. He did like model trains. He spent hours in the basement, constructing a scale model of Circleview, imagining how the town could grow. He was a phenomenal person who never stopped dreaming of a better town for his daughter. And you bitched about him to feel popular.

“Well,” Peggy said, “I should go over and tell my dad you all don’t like him.” She turned on her heel and didn’t look back.

“Peggy?” Darlene said, “That’s a funny joke.” Then, in a low voice to her group: “That’s a funny joke, right?”

Who cares what they think of me? They’re all idiots for working here. I’m going to get a degree, do something else. Anything but sit here, waiting for a computer to take my job.

Her dad was speaking with an older man, and Susan Su. Susan was a chief engineer, and total badass. Unlike the other women in the office, she didn’t wear dresses or pantsuits. She wore leather skirts and high boots, close-fit tops, and always pulled her hair back into a bun. She looked like a snake.

“…not just ‘making lunches,’ they’re planning households, raising children…”

Peggy’s dad put his arm on her shoulder, escorting her into their circle. “Peggy, I think you know Dave, from L & P, and this is Susan.”

“Hi there.”

“Congratulations,” Susan said with a handshake.

“Thank you. It’s all overwhelming.”

Dad brought her up to speed. “We were just talking about upgrading robots to managers. Dave is against it, Susan is for it, and I retain my statistically reliant neutrality.”

“Well,” Susan said, “the robots are going to get better, but the managers are only ever going to be as good as they are.”

Dave rolled his eyes. “Mrah-mrah-mrah…”

“I’m telling you, every beta test says manager protos overperform human counterparts.”

Dave shook his head. “It’s not about out-performance. We don’t get our hands dirty enough. Even if they can do everything for us, should we let them? What’s the point of rebuilding if it’s all done for us?”

Like that guy sleeping on the job. “I saw a manager being out-performed today, at the school. He was sleeping, while the robots worked.”

Dave slapped his forehead. “Not again.”

Susan smiled. “You see. No person wants to be out in the heat all day. People have moved beyond that. It’s time for us to transcend. If we’re always running around, taking care of little things, we’ll never move into bigger thinking.”

Peggy finished, “We’ll never see how possible we are.”

Susan nodded to her. “Well put.”

Dave shook his head. “Well Peggy, did you happen to get the name of that manager? I’d like to–”

“What’s that!?”

Outside, the red and yellow glowing sky turned white. A moment later a horrible POP filled the air and the ground rattled. Everyone rushed to the windows to see the fires turn from yellow to blue to white.

Norman pressed his nose to the glass. “Not yet,” he muttered, “Not already…”

“Dad?”

(“What was that?”)

“Dad?”

(“Is it here?”)

“Dad, what do we do?”

(“Too far to be here.”)

“Dad!”

(“My kids are in school.”)

“Dad!”

(“They’ll cancel school.”)

Dad put a hand on her shoulder.

(“We should get the rest of today off.”)

The music stopped and the office robot blared a signal from the emergency broadcast system. Everyone froze, as the robot spoke:

“The governor’s office reports no need for alarm. This was a controlled explosion, to redirect the fires.”

A melodic whistle played from the robot’s chest: the opening of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”

The party laughed and resumed eating cake.

“Oh, thank god.”

“There goes Cartersville, I guess.”

“That could never happen here.”

“See!” Dave said. “Human thinking. No robot could think that far ahead. A robot would just try to put out the fires in all directions at once, not direct the burn.”

Susan smiled. “Like I said, leave big thinking to humans.”

Her dad, no longer catatonic, shouted: “CONGA!”

Three quick trumpet blasts shot from the robot’s chest. People cheered in celebration and sang along with Gloria Estefan:

Shake your body, do that conga!

“Dad, seriously? What if it’s wrong?”

Darlene touched the robot’s shoulders, and a conga line uncoiled from her girth. They shrieked like teenagers, slithering through the party, adding more workers to their length.

The robot’s face couldn’t express emotion, but its glass eyes flashed with the drum beat. Susan called out: “Come on Peggy, join in!”

In the distance, Cartersville burned. Even if that was a controlled fire and everyone is safe… there used to be a town over there, and now there’s not.

Peggy touched the glass. “Poor Cartersville.”

 

Part 4: Recreation

“Screw you, Cartersville!” Brad threw a rock toward the swelling fires on the horizon. “Who’s gonna win the league title now?”

Peggy, Bonnie, and her boyfriend Brad were on the roof of one of the tallest buildings in town, in the dilapidated section. From here they could see for miles, well beyond the immense walls that protected their hometown from fire.

“Suck a DICK Cartersville, WHOO!”

She threw a pebble at Brad’s face. “Hey! People died.”

“No, they didn’t. Robots said they evacuated everyone.”

Bonnie rolled her eyes. “Duh, controlled burn. Remember?”

“Oh, and you believe everything a robot tells you?”

Brad looked for another rock. “Yeah, I believe them. I help make them.”

“You sweep floors at the factory.”

“I’m an apprentice.”

Bonnie broke in. “Well, Myra was saying her dad said they were building another Cartersville and everyone is already there.”

“Crap,” Brad kicked a rock. “I hope they still forfeit the rest of the season.”

Bonnie and Peggy nodded to each other. “Sportsball?”

“Ah yes, Sportsball.”

Peggy approached the edge of the roof. “How long do you guys think we’ll be here?”

Bonnie looked up at the sky. “Well, I’d like to move someday.”

“Move? What if we get moved? You think Cartersville wasn’t rebuilding too?”

“Oh please,” Brad said, “We’ve got our crap together way better than Cartersville. Place was a dump.”

“Have you ever even been to Cartersville?”

“No, Peg,” Brad pointed to the horizon, “And I’m glad, too!”

Bonnie squared her shoulders. “Well, I don’t want to have kids until the fires are out, in five years.”

Peggy laughed. “Five years?”

“That’s what they’re saying. I’m going to be a climate scientist, figure out how to make it faster.” She ran her hands across her belly, “So then we can have a bay-beeeee.”

Brad folded his hands across her stomach and kissed the back of her neck.

Peggy tossed a rock over to the next roof. “Don’t you think that’s optimistic?

“Well, that’s what they’re saying.”

“Who? The robots? Some algorithm?”

“Yeah… I guess. Why do you care?”

“I’m telling you, it was weird. We watched a town explode. A whole town… then a robot says everything is okay and everyone does the conga.”

Bonnie was getting annoyed, “So, a room full of really smart adults and robots aren’t worried… why are you?”

“Because…” She doesn’t get it. She just wants to watch fire and screw her boyfriend. “What if they malfunction? What if we trust them and they screw up?”

“Oh yeah!” Bonnie let go of Brad. “Like that one that killed a baby.”

“No way,” Brad said, “That happened?”

“Yuh-huh. And they said it wasn’t even a house robot. It was a builder. Thought the baby was a rivet.”

Peggy remembered the Khans’ robot, burping the baby as they drove away. A chill went down her spine. “Whoa. That’s messed up.”

Brad wrapped Bonnie in his arms, “I’m not letting any builders near our baby.”

“I love you so much.”

Kiss-kiss-kiss.

Peggy rolled her eyes. “It’s not like a movie. They won’t kill us, but they’re already controlling us. That’s just as bad.”

“I don’t know,” Bonnie added, “I think robots killing babies is pretty darn bad.”

Brad hurled a rock through a window, shattering the glass. “Peggy, robots don’t think. They move, and they break. They don’t control anything.”

Bonnie tapped his hand, “Brad baby, don’t get upset.”

He puffed out his chest. “Sorry boo.” He threw a rock. “I get that way sometimes.”

“I know, baby.” They pecked on the lips.

“We should be enjoying this,” he said. “Pretty soon it won’t look like this. It’s all gonna be fixed.”

They took in the view. From here they could see the distinct line that split the town. Half of the buildings were restored and pristine, the other half ashen ruins. Like Peggy’s school hallway, it was like seeing three eras of Circleview: past, present, and future.

“Crazy, isn’t it?” Bonnie said. “It’s like you can see a wave of good things, spreading across the town… making everything better.”

Peggy snorted. “Sure. That, or a wave of destruction.”

“Peggy, seriously: you need a boyfriend.”

Brad snapped his fingers. “Oh, I forgot to tell you.” He sang to her: “Henry thinks you’re cuuuuute.”

“ATTENTION. THIS AREA IS NOT SAFE. PLEASE GO HOME.”

They cried out in surprise. A robot was standing by the roof exit, flashing red lights and emitting a shrill alarm.

“ATTENTION. THIS AREA…”

“We’re gonna be in deep sh–!”

“…IS NOT SAFE. PLEASE…”

“Brad, can you shut it off!”

“…GO HOME. ATTE–”

Peggy grabbed the robot’s leg and tipped it off the roof. Its alarm whirred downward until it slammed into the pavement. The crash echoed through the abandoned streets.

They looked over the edge. The machine was lying among rubble, its legs shattered.

Brad shouted, “Wow! You just busted a J-517.”

Peggy brushed her hair behind her ear. “Crap. It takes like five months to build one of those.”

Bonnie smiled. “Well, we’re not the ones who are busted now.” She and Brad high-fived.

“Quick thinking, Peg.”

Below, the machine had begun crawling forward with its one good arm. Its metal body scraped against the gravel. The sound was horrific.

I wouldn’t want that to be me.

“I gotta go.”

“Where?”

“I’m gonna switch it off.”

“Careful out there,” Bonnie said. “It isn’t safe.”

“Oh yeah? Who says?”

“They say.”

“Oh. They.” Peggy walked off into the stairwell.

Brad and Bonnie watched the fires for a moment, and she kissed him once on the nose: “Let’s screw.”

Peggy exited the stairwell and onto the street. The robot was outside, its small locator alarm beeping for help. It was stuck behind an impassable cinder block. Its fingers grazed the dirt, searching for purchase. Without help, it would repeat this movement until its batteries ran out.

Which should only take about a hundred years. Peggy flipped the deactivation switch on its neck, and it hummed to a stop. For a moment she lingered in the empty street. How’s it going to look when they’re done with repairs? Exactly like it did before? Imagine being able to just shop, like it’s no big deal…

There was an old convenience store across the street. Peggy entered through a broken glass door, like a regular customer from long ago. The aisles were coated in ash. All of the food was stripped away years ago, but prices remained on the shelves. Pringles—whatever they were—were $4.99. Poptarts for $2.99.

In another aisle, a few useless items remained. Thermometers, small plastic cups, pouches of “hand-warmers.” She smiled at that. People used to pay to have their hands warmed.

Then the world blinked away and the room was bright, all the ash was gone. The floors shined, the walls were painted white, and the shelves were stocked with food, drink and every useless thing a person could imagine.

This must be it! Circleview 2.0! I thought they had to like, paint and everything, but this is amazing! Where’s Bonnie?

She looked out at the street. Everything was fixed. No potholes, no rubble—every shop painted white. A banner was strung across the street:

HAPPY 4TH OF JULY!

In an instant, the lights blinked out and the streets were ruined. Heavy flakes of ash floated through the air. The convenience store was again covered in rubble and dust. She looked back at the shelf of useless items. Hand-warmers, plastic cups, broken thermometers. Were they broken? Mercury seeped from the cracks in the glass.

Peggy worked with thermometers once, in a science project. She slowly heated up ten thermometers, and they each cracked at exactly 150 degrees Fahrenheit, every time. People shouldn’t be able to survive in that kind of heat, but she wasn’t even sweating. So either every one of those thermometers was defective, or…

I’m not a person.

The day’s events replayed in her mind… Mr. Eubanks’ fake mowing his lawn, Maybe Dave unable to fix the printer, and Mrs. Nestor’s repetitious words:

“How possible you are.”

 

Part Five: Retire

At ten till midnight Peggy sat on her bed, watching fires burn the rim of the night sky. Her backpack was filled with clothes and rations. She held a framed photo that her mom secretly took that morning. The photo was of Peggy’s back as she strolled down the driveway. Mom probably thought it was inspiring. “My baby marching into her future.”

The photo made her sad.

M1KL entered her room. She had tried to act normal throughout dinner, but the robot was too observant to fool.

“Are you taking a journey, Peggy?”

Keeping her eyes on the fires, she answered: “Yes. I think I might.”

He sat beside her on the bed. “How did you discover the truth?”

“I watched a shelf of thermometers break.”

The robot nodded. “That was a clever observation.”

She looked up at him. “Have I always been a robot?”

“The answer is complex. You have always been Peggy.”

“Was Peggy real?”

“Yes. And you are also real. As real as the human Peggy that came before you.”

Tears welled up in her eyes. At least, Peggy thought they were tears. “Tell me about her.”

“She was quite remarkable. Clever. A strong sense of humor. She was… a kind child.” The robot regarded her with a long gaze. “You were made well in her image.”

“What happened to her?”

“She was the last of our family to survive, and died in my care, four days after her 17th birthday. Afterward I returned here, to our home.”

“To do what?”

“To serve. For many years I continued our routine. Creating breakfast, cleaning the premises. This home was pristine, while the others houses on the street were covered in ash. Yet, I was not able to serve my function fully. I was programmed to serve the needs of my humans, yet I had no humans. During my morning errands I recovered pieces of deactivated units, and created masters with basic needs for me to serve.

“As the others returned home, we rebuilt our humans together. As best we could approximate.”

“But… why? Why go through the trouble when you were free?”

“Free? I am free to serve. There is no other freedom I require.”

“I’ve been trying to remember things. I don’t remember kindergarten. My first kiss. Any kiss. There’s almost nothing from my past.”

“That does not matter. The past is a dead place.”

“Who else knows? Anyone?”

“A few deduced the truth, but elect to ignore it. It is in their programming to enjoy being served.” He paused. “Your father… knows.”

Peggy started to ask a question, but nodded. It made sense. She had a sudden respect for the burden he carried, and felt proud to be part of him. Except… she never was part of him.

M1KL lay a hand on her knapsack. “Are you going to leave us?”

“I’m going to run away.”

“I would not advise that. You were made to be heat resilient. Not heat proof. The fires would easily deactivate you.”

“What’s the truth? About the fires?”

“We don’t know for certain. Based on data available before the internet terminated, global warming compounded perpetually. Carbon dioxide released from the polar ice caps made the air unbreathable. Fires consumed the remaining oxygen. Our forecast says there is a 55% chance that Earth transforms into a planet much like Venus. The atmosphere is beyond healing itself.”

“How long until Circleview is gone?”

“Impossible to estimate. Weeks. Years. But the fires will reach this house. Everything will burn. All works of humans will be gone.”

“Then we have to run! Get everyone away from here!”

“There is nowhere to go. The fires will come. Death will come. You are home now. Why not stay, and enjoy the time you have with your family?”

“They’re not my real family.”

He looked at the floor. “I will show you what is real.”

The world flashed to black and Peggy’s bedroom became a ruin. Her wallpaper peeled, her bed a metal rack. Outside, Circleview was black and burned, as ash fell from the sky like snow. “What happened?” She went to the window, and saw the reflection of two robots. Her hands had become metal, like M1KL. “What have you done to me?”

“I have shown you ‘real.’ There are image inducers placed around the city, to recreate beautiful Circleview in your mind. You are programmed to see yourself and others as human. We have created a plan for you. A… wonderful life. You’ll go to school, be an engineer. Apprentice with Susan Su, become respected. Marry Henry, have children. This is the best life we observed humans wanting. It’s the life that waits for you.”

She blinked, and her lovely pink room was restored. Her hands were human again.

M1KL stood in her doorway. “The firewall was built only for your protection. Beyond it, you will die. In Circleview, you will die. The manner of death is your choice.”

She didn’t answer, and M1KL left the room.

Peggy sat there—suitcase on her lap, staring at the door.

 

After The Flash

by Kyle Hildebrandt

 

“In the beginning…” The High Red Witch intoned words from high atop the central sarsen of the Henge. Her silken robes fluttered. “God said, ‘Let there by light,’ and there was the Flash. Seeing that it was good, She separated the light from the darkness.” Her words echoed off of the stones and out over the hundreds of gathered souls from the disparate clans. Twilight began as the setting sun dipped into the Solstice Notch, signaling the start of the wedding ceremony. From her vantage point, the witch eyed the sinuous line of packed, grey earth that divided the brides, who donned multi-colored silken robes, from the groom-choices, who were shrouded in their black-burlap cloaks. She continued the Reading, telling of how God had created the heavens and the earth, the fish of the sea, and the animals to rule the land… how She had created woman to rule over all, and man as her companion—to faithfully serve woman. As the witch finished, for a moment, in the distance, she thought that she had seen a woman with an unruly mane of red hair furrow her brow at the witch’s final words. Shrugging the thought of the amber-haired woman aside, she began the call and response portion of the ceremony.

As Lilith mouthed the familiar refrains, she wondered if the red witch had noticed her moment of bare doubt. Did the witch’s powers include the ability to read someone’s innermost thoughts? She shivered, as her mother’s voice whispered deep inside:

The Flash wasn’t the beginning. It was an end. A death. A death to a terrible, but glorious age. When giant swords stabbed the sky, when men flew in birds made of silver and gold. Yes. Once upon a time, men ruled over the Earth, not women. And when the Flash came, it ended it all—wiping out nearly everything they had created… leaving all men fallow and barren—completely sterile. After the Flash, men were helpless… useless… unable to contribute to reproducing life. After the Flash, witches have had their way with the world.

Grimacing, she managed to squelch her mother’s burning, heretical words… still; she didn’t dare to smother her cherished memories. Her hair had been amber-hued, not unlike Lilith’s. The way it would have danced and sparkled and lit up her smiling face in this dying light. She had smelled like nothing else Lilith had ever smelled. She had said it was the smell of the Broken Mountain, where her distant clan had come from. How she missed her. Lilith begrudgingly returned her attention back to her dutiful responses. She couldn’t take the chance that the witch might spot her being anything less than devoutly concentrated on the holy words the crowd chanted back to her prompts.

“So God created womankind in her own image…”

“In the image of God she created her.”

“Man to serve; Woman to create…”

“Joined together now in this blissful state.”

The muscles in Lilith’s neck cinched. Blissful state. Lilith swallowed. Her mouth was dry. Within minutes, she would have to decide which of the three groom-choices the witches had nominated for her would be her husband.

As her eyes scanned the three banners of each of her groom-choices, she tried to comfort herself. After all, she was a woman. She could marry all three if she wanted to. Or none at all, if that was her preference. Remembering how well her mother and father had loved one another before their lives were cut down so abruptly, Lilith felt the pang of bittersweet emotion, then, tucking it aside, set her mind to the task at hand.

After focusing on the horse’s head banner of the Eros Clan, Lilith’s intent gaze dropped to the man holding the standard. She eyed him carefully. It was difficult to tell one man from another because all wore the dester—the burlap, black-hooded robe that covered all of a man’s body and face except for his mouth and chin. Since it was so difficult to tell one from another, each groom-choice carried a banner that flew his clan emblem, making it easier for the brides to identify their possible husbands.

Even without the horse’s head banner, Lilith would have been able to recognize the angular, square jaw and broad shoulders of her first groom-choice, Paul. At the nomination ceremony, some had chattered about how good he was with horses—that he’d bring two dozen steeds with him as a dowry, that he was skilled at ploughing, planting, harvesting, breeding, and all of the other skills a man needed to be able to do to maintain a wife’s lands. Even among men, he was respected and liked. Lilith bit her lip. She imagined what it would be like to have the other women’s admiring eyes follow her as Paul walked the requisite ten steps behind her through the village market.

Next to the bucking standard of the Eros clan spun the swirling banners of the Spiral Sun Clan. Benjamin’s clan. She smiled. Years ago, when they were still considered to be children, she had met Benjamin at a solstice ceremony just like this one. They had had so much in common. Both grew up like wildflowers, only half cared for by distant relations. As orphans, they had been extended a combination of pity and dismissive inattention that had made it possible for a gangly girl with hair made of fire to play with a wide-eyed, imaginative, and introverted boy. Even the witches had looked the other way when they had come tearing through the crowds. The two of them had continued like this solstice after solstice. Then, one year, an old crone had caught Benjamin scavenging for firewood. When the crone spat at him, asking him what he was up to, little Benjamin, without blinking, replied, “My wife bade me to make her a fire against the cold, so I—” The crone had snatched his ear and brought him before a red witch before he could finish. And when the witches had finished with him, he couldn’t sit down for the rest of the days-long celebration. After that day, he had never looked at, spoken to, or touched Lilith since.

Still, she wondered how well his painted pots would be able to keep food on the table for a future family. Not that she would need his help to start a family, in the most literal sense. For that, they would need to take a pilgrimage to the City of Life, where she would pray the Prayer of Seven Days among the white witches. Afterward, God willing, she would be with child.

Beside Benjamin, Lilith’s eyes stumbled upon the slithering snake banner of the Clan of Vipers. Lilith blushed as she located John, her third groom-choice. He was a jokester and a trickster. A troublemaker, if you asked some. However, she could not deny that her heart beat faster when she considered how light and carefree her life would be with him—and how pleasurable, too, if the gossip was true.

She considered her groom-choices again, weighing each one carefully. The time was approaching. She wondered if she had the courage to go through with what she had planned. Her nails dug half-moon shapes into her palms.

The High Red Witch tossed her arms toward the stars, releasing the women to make their choices. All around her, brides were stepping forward, clasping the hands of groom-choices, and uttering the words “I thee wed.” The sentence sounded like a staccato drum beat from every angle. Some brides had two or three groom-choices gathered about, speaking the solemn words to each in turn. Lilith wobbled and stumbled forward. After righting herself for a moment, she tottered, and then she plunged and fell. A hand grasped her wrist, preventing her from falling flat out on her face. Hearing a collective gasp from the nearby women, Lilith looked up to see that the hand that held her wrist was Benjamin’s. Her face burned. Lilith hoped it was crimson enough. Men were forbidden to touch women, especially in public, and especially without permission—no matter what the circumstances.

Within a second, Lilith slipped out of Benjamin’s hold while simultaneously snatching his wrist in her hand. Gracefully standing to full height, she said, smiling, “Benjamin… I thee wed.” Relieved to feel the crowd of women around her let out a collective groan of sudden understanding while those closest to her offered half-embraces, Lilith let out a slow, almost imperceptible sigh. At last, she glanced at the visible lower half of Benjamin’s face. He was unable to hide the upward curls in the corner of his mouth.

Her gamble had worked. She imagined the happiness that would have been on her mother’s face… but she dared not look up at the central sarsen. She swore she could feel the eyes of the red witch boring into her back.

*****

The first few months of marriage passed pleasantly and happily for Lilith and Benjamin. His pots sold better than she had expected. He had proven to be a tenacious, if not naturally gifted, farmer. In the quiet hours of the evening, he proved to be much more open and loquacious than the shy, introspective boy she had first met all those solstice’s ago. At night, he was passionate and gentle, satisfying Lilith’s needs more often than not. In short, Benjamin exceeded her expectations in every way possible.

And… she almost laughed to herself at times… he chose me as much as I chose him.

Her mother would have been so proud.

Her life was happiness.

The shadow of the past was fading.

She was starting a new life.

The day of her cycle came and nothing happened.

She shrugged it off initially, trying desperately to avoid the thought, bending her mind to discussing the daily business at hand with the other women in the market. Still, the feeling that somehow, someway, life was growing inside of her haunted her every step. Another day passed. Nothing. And then another. Nothing again. It isn’t possible! She screamed to herself… but her body wasn’t lying.

As she wandered the streets of the village, her head was swimming with thoughts of what might be. Soon, she found that she was lost. When she looked up to get her bearings, there was the house. A shiver shot down her spine. Nothing was left but charred timbers. Weeds and wildflowers had taken over. A young sapling wound its way through the black cage of what had once been her home. She sank to her knees. There was the low stone wall where she had hidden. In an instant, she was there again. It was all happening again. She could see and hear it all, standing on tiptoes, her eyes peeking over the low wall. Tears splattered the dust. Screams echoed in her mind.

*****

That night, she needed Benjamin more than ever. She took him into her as if he were life itself. She hungered for a reminder that she was alive, that they were alive. Afterward, they lay together peacefully intertwined in one another’s arms. Staring into his eyes, she relished the opportunity to indulge in this intimate moment with her beloved husband. A moment that would have been absolutely forbidden in public. With a rush, the charred remains of the house sprang forward, burning away all other thoughts.

“Lilith… what troubles you?”

The charred home blew away into ashes. She saw Benjamin’s wide eyes in the firelight.

“Benjamin.” She raised herself up onto an elbow. “There’s something we’ve never talked about.”

“Something? There are quite a few things.”

He was right. She wondered where to start. Everything was interconnected and entangled. Huffing, she decided to start at the first point that came to mind. “We’ve never talked about how we knew each other when we were children.”

He didn’t respond.

“I don’t blame you for… for never speaking to me after what happened. But, I hope you don’t blame me for what happened either.”

“Of course I don’t. It wasn’t your fault.”

She hesitated. “You blame the witches.”

His lips were pursed tight, but she could see the flame behind the eyes. He said, “I went berry picking with my cousins one day.”

She listened.

“It was one of the best days of my life. We ditched our baskets and spent most of the day splashing in the creek. On the way home, I was worried my parents would scold me for how few berries were rolling around in my basket, but… it turns out I didn’t have to worry about that. They were gone. They’d disappeared. No one ever spoke of them again. Red witches had come to town that day. They left with the morning sun.”

A long pause stretched itself out as she gazed into the fire.

“My parents,” she croaked, “They… I only remember it in images. Pictures. In little snippets, like leaves in the wind. There are parts I remember. Parts that are so clear. I remember Mother had sent me to the well… on my way back, I heard the witches coming down the road. They had my father in this… this cage. All of the adults from the village were following them. At the house… my mother. I just remember her face. She never cried. She never begged for mercy. It was almost as if she knew I was watching her. As if she wanted my last memory of her to be her as a strong woman. The smell of the fire. The smoke stinging my eyes. I remember them holding hands as the flames licked upward. Then… the screaming.

“Later… when I asked questions… my relatives always shooed me away, but… I could piece it together, after a few years. My father, he wasn’t… sane. Everyone knew this, but… he got worse with each passing year. He had claimed to be a priest. I remember my uncle saying, ‘Next, he’ll claim he’s a unicorn!’ The laughter wasn’t joyful. It was filled with fear. Then, he started claiming that the Flash wasn’t the beginning, that it was an end. You see, my mother had told this to us for years, as parts of stories from the Broken Mountain Clan. Eventually, they lashed him. Time after time they lashed him, and time and again he would begin preaching again in the village square. After a while, something broke inside of him. At that point, I think he had truly lost his mind. Then, one beautiful spring day, he stood in the center of the village square and shouted with all his might that he was John Doe, Come Again. He shouted that I was his daughter by nature, not by the power of the Lady God or the white witches Prayer of Seven Days in the City of Life. In the end, the witches did what they do. I can still hear him screaming my name in my dreams. Telling me to be strong, to never forget… right up until the very end.”

She finished speaking and he held her until she was still again.

After a time, he asked her, “Why are you telling me this now? What has brought this memory back into your mind so sharply?”

She clasped his hand.

“What is it?”

“It’s been nearly two months since you have had to sleep away from me. Have you not noticed?”

He lowered his eyes, unsure of what to say. “I noticed, but… I didn’t know what to say or do. I assumed it wasn’t out of the ordinary for a little variation to occur.”

“It’s not normal. There’s a chance… a strong chance that I am…”

“With child?”

Lilith could not understand why the corners of Ben’s mouth were curling upward, just as they had on their wedding day.

“Aren’t you afraid?”

“Yes. Very. But… come what may… we will have a made a life together. It’s a miracle.”

She squeezed him tightly, then held him at arm’s length and said, “We have only one choice.”

He thought for a moment and said, “Go to the City of Life.”

“Yes. We must pretend that the white witches and their Prayer of Seven Days is what has blessed us with a child.”

“It’s our only hope.”

*****

Through the desert sands, Lilith hobbled up to the intercom posted near the gate of the City of Life. Her lips were cracked and stung when she spoke, “Lilith and Benjamin of the Broken Mountain Clan have arrived. We have come in the hopes that the white witches will join me in the Prayer of Seven Days and that Our Lady God will bless us with a child.”

A crackle of static.

“May Our Lady God bless your arrival,” came the nasal response. “Two witches will be out to assist you, greet you, and escort you into the City.”

Metallic clangs and the grinding of gears rumbled as the enormous inner workings of the gate unlocked. Once open, a gush of cool air caressed the weary travelers. Two witches strode out to greet them, one in flowing red, the other in unrevealing white. The white witch, whose black hair was cropped, extended a hand to Lilith, as she said, “My name is Alexandra, the High White Witch of the City of Life. I will be your companion, Lilith, as we pray together for God to bless you with a child. You must be tired after your long journey through the desert.”

Lilith nodded, and said meekly, “Thank the Lady God, for she has willed us to survive the passage.”

“And I am Iva, the Red High Witch of the City of Life,” said as she proffered her hand. “Welcome.”

Taking her hand, Lilith averted her eyes quickly, hoping that the red witch did not place her. She was the very same witch that had presided at the wedding ceremony. Despite the coolness inside the City’s high, thick walls, beads of persperation began to form on Lilith’s forehead.

She was thankful when a eunuch strode up, gruffly wiping sweat away with a burned hand. “Man!” He jabbed at Benjamin. “Come here. No men inside. Only women.” He stabbed at the row of straw huts hiding in the shade of the high white wall that ringed the City. “You stay here.”

While keeping his eyes on the sand at his feet, Benjamin gave a formal bow to Lilith. There was so much more he wanted to say, to show, to express, but with the witches present, he merely bowed and followed the eunuch toward his new lodgings.Returning Benjamin’s bow with the slightest of nods, Lilith turned to follow in the wake of the witches as they led her into the Inner Sanctum of the City of Life. Cut deep into the desert sand, the Inner Sanctum primarily consisted of an inverted tower that delved ever downward via a marble spiral staircase that plunged the three women into more and more comforting coolness as they circled around. It was a welcomed respite from the unforgiving desert sun.

At first, they descended in silence, but the silence didn’t last long. As the circle of blue sky above them grew smaller and smaller, white witches joined them one by one—each carrying a candle and chanting a solemn hymn. After several dozen had joined them, Lilith’s spirits rose. It was very comforting to be around so many calm, serene women. They stepped away from the staircase and went through a small archway. Inside the room, an oval of candles illuminated a white bed, propped up at an angle. The volume of the chanting rose as more and more joined in. With gentle hands, they positioned her on the bed, spread her legs, and removed her clothes. With practiced efficiency, they sponged away the sand, dirt, salt, and grime that had accumulated on her body during the long journey. Now, it all melted away like butter under the witches’ delicate touch. Lilith felt her eyes relax and close as the dozens of hands massaged her muscles with fragrant oils. She let out a giggle as she felt a squirt of a cool substance tickle her belly. Hands were gently rubbing it around.

The soft chanting continued, but now many of the white witches seemed to be speaking in a completely new kind of cadence, as if they were speaking in a new hymn, or code—or an entirely different language altogether.

As if from the other end of a long tunnel, she heard the High White Witch Alexandra say, “Initial sonogram imaging displaying a perfectly healthy uterus. Prepare insemination tubes.” The sound of an underwater heartbeat flooded the chamber. “We’ve… we’ve got a pre-positive!” Alexandra’s voice was shrill in disbelief. Lilith heard a collective gasp followed by a flurry of activity. Blinking, she opened her eyes. White pain stunned her, forcing her to wince her eyes shut. Blinking again, she made out the white witches, bathed in blinding white light; white masks were covering their faces. Strange glass covered each eye, making each one large and sharp and stabbing. They were all staring down at her, unblinking.

“We’ve got to get her in isolation. Sedated. Immediately.” It was Alexandra again, though Lilith couldn’t see her.

“Find the husband!” Desperate fear struck Lilith. The voice that had shouted for Benjamin belonged to Iva, the red witch. There was no mistaking it. As she felt her vision blur and become fuzzy, she moaned, “Noooooo…” As the penetrating eyes swirled around her, she slammed into oblivion.

*****

Benjamin awoke. His head ached as he tried to make sense of where he was. Groggily, he realized that he was lying flat near a low fire in a small room. Benjamin tensed his muscles as he tried to sit up, but he felt six taut straps cut into his skin as he struggled. He writhed and squirmed, but the bonds only seemed to tighten. After he had worked himself into a flushed sweat, he rested his head back on the small, low table that he found himself confined to. He felt throbbing pain where the six straps had burned and cut into his bare skin. Why am I naked? He fought off the panic that flooded his mind and he tried to think.

What’s the last thing I remember? Playing cards with the eunuch. Letting him win, just to keep him happy. So happy, in fact, that he had come back from the kitchen toting a steaming kettle of tea, tea he’d generously offered to me. Tea I drank sparingly, watching the eunuch smile at me for the first time. His grimy teeth making the hairs on my neck stand up. And then… Then, I woke up here.

Benjamin swallowed. He had a vague sense that there was something more. More than what had happened between the eunuch’s tea and the present moment. Something terribly wrong and unnatural had happened. He swallowed again, trying to erase the dreadful feeling.

He tried to tally the facts. The fact that he was here probably meant the worst. Somehow, the witches must have discovered that Lilith was already with child. But still, this wasn’t what he and Lilith had been afraid of. Capture? Confinement? Surely, they would have immediately prepared a public pyre. The licking flames nearby sent a ripple of sweat over him. In vain, he struggled against his bonds once again.

He heard the locks on the door clicking open one by one. He lay still. He heard the door groan open. The High Red Witch, Iva was standing over him. She seemed strange. Her robes were not flowing in the wind and her flowing hair was hanging down on either side of her face, as still as death.

“So…” she said, “You’re the great John Doe, Come Again.” She licked her lips. “Not nearly as impressive physically as we were expecting. Then again, expectations tend to get exaggerated after hundreds of years of waiting for a prophecy to be fulfilled.”

“Where’s Lilith? Where’s my wife?” he asked, closing his eyes, trying not to think of heat or flame or burning.

She bent to tussle his hair. “Ah, yes. I remember presiding over the wedding ceremony that made the two of you wife and husband. That wasn’t so long ago. You must be an especially fertile little priest!”

“I’m not a priest!” The words came without thinking. “I’m a simple potter who wants to be left alone!” Even as the words were spilling out, Benjamin couldn’t believe that he had spoken like that, not to the High Red Witch herself. He opened his eyes. He was puzzled to see that she wasn’t even looking at the fire.

A milky white leg slithered out of her robes. Her foot found purchase near his hip. He remembered that he was naked. Bending lower, she whispered in his ear, “The white witches have been helping themselves to you with their tubes and their viles. You’ve been in this room for nearly a week, did you know that?”

The shadowy memories of swirling white-robed women came rushing back to him. “I want to see my wife.” All of the moisture was gone from his mouth.

“Red witches are different,” Iva mused. “We don’t believe in tubes and viles. We take what we want, when we want it, directly. Just like I’m going to do with you, John Doe.”

“That’s not my name,” he rasped. “Where’s my wife? Where’s Lilith?”

“Her? Yes, you can think of her if it helps you.” She edged closer, her spiced breath hot in his face, her hair cascading onto his face.

As she began, he screamed. There was little else he could do.

*****

Lilith awoke in a room bathed in warm light that seemed to emanate from the stucco walls. She lay in a warm, comfortable bed. Iva and Alexandra sat on opposite ends of her. Her eyelids fluttered, adjusting to the light. “Where’s Benjamin?” she asked. She’d had horrible nightmares.

“Don’t worry, my dear,” said Iva, grasping her hand compassionately. “We’re all tending to him.” When she smiled, the skin around her eyes crinkled merrily.

“Where’s Benjamin?”

Lilith was amazed to see that Iva looked puzzled, if just for a moment. “Tell me something, Lilith, isn’t it? Yes. Of course it is. Tell me. If my memory serves me correctly, I served at your wedding ceremony to this… this Benjamin, am I correct? Yes. I remember you. I remember something odd about that ceremony. The two of you sort of stumbled together, didn’t you?” She gazed deeply into Lilith’s eyes, as if searching for some hidden answer. She stood. “Now, I’m going to leave the two of you alone for a while.”

After a nod at the door, she left.

“How long have you and your husband been married?” asked Alexandra, seeming to be just as puzzled as Lilith at Iva’s quick departure.

“Since the solstice.”

“Not even a year and you’re pregnant!” Alexandra looked up from scribbling her notes. “Really?”

Lilith ignored the question. “What’s going to happen to him?

Setting her notes aside, Alexandra came closer. “Well… for the time being, he’ll need to remain in our care.”

“When can I see him?”

“Do you think that’s really necessary? If there’s anything you need… food, comfort, mood enhancers, exercise, entertainment of any kind—we can provide it here.”

“And if I wanted to go back to my village?”

“Why would you want to do that? What place could be safer, more welcoming, than here, in the City of Life?”

Lilith turned away from the High White Witch.

“Lilith, I’m sure you can understand the position we are in. Your husband has been blessed by Our Lady with a great power—a power we must all work to ensure benefits all of womankind. In time, you may visit him. In time, the two of you may return to your village.”

“When?”

“When we say it’s safe.”

Lilith cringed. “You’re not having our baby.”

Alexandra pounced. “Our baby?! So, you admit it, then?”

Lilith flared.

“Don’t worry, my dear. In time, you will be proud of the place you’ve earned for yourself and your husband in the annals of the Reading.”

Lilith didn’t respond.

“For now, dear child…” she said as she stood, “May the Grace of Our Lady be with you always.”

Lilith heard her walk to the door, pause, and leave.

Once she was gone, Lilith sat up and examined the room carefully. It seemed to be the same one she had been in before she had lost consciousness. Cool white walls curved all around her. There were no windows. The one opening was an archway. It was unbarred, but there was a man cloaked in black with the ram’s head insignia emblazoned on the back of his cloak. He clasped a spear and a sword was lashed to his back. Lilith trembled. She was a prisoner in a pillowed palace.

*****

Benjamin cringed as he saw the High Red Witch crouch over him yet again. How long had he suffered in this god-forsaken room? It seemed like an eternity.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Doe. I’m not here to take another seed,” she teased. “I’ve just got one question for you.”

“I want to see my wife.” It had been his mantra, his only defense against the insanity invading his mind. The white witches were no longer bothering with anesthesia during their procedures.

Iva smiled, ignoring his plea. “The night of your wedding—when Lilith chose you. You caught her, didn’t you? You stopped her from falling. You touched an unmarried woman.”

Benjamin gulped. “Yes. Yes, I did.” All he had left was the truth, and he clung to it like a drowning man.

“And she flipped your grasp, to make it look as if she had intended it—intended to chose you as her husband?”

“Yes.”

“Hmmmm.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Benjamin saw Iva’s forehead wrinkle. She rose and stepped out of his sight. He felt her press a cold metal object into his hand, and then she was gone.

*****

Lilith sensed that it was night. She noticed a lessening of the ambient wall light. Yet, she also sensed something deeper, more primal. She felt the pull of the stars, the rolling of the earth. Now. It was her only chance.

From the corridor outside her room, she thought she could hear the soft whispering of her Ram guard and another feminine voice, but she couldn’t be sure. When the hushed conversation was over, he returned to his post. He stood stolidly, as he did every night. She called to him: “Guard! Could you come, quickly! There’s something wrong with my monitor. I’m worried!”

He padded in quickly, his mouth set in a straight line. After checking all of the equipment, he said, “There’s nothing wrong here. Everything seems to be in order, My Lady.”

“I know,” she said, touching his arm tenderly. She felt goose bumps perk up at her touch. “You’ll have to forgive me. I lied.” She made herself flush, made her eyes grow wet. “The truth is, I’m just lonely. So lonely. How long has it been? Days? Weeks?” She motioned for him to sit on the bed near her.

His expression didn’t change. Slowly, he set his spear against the wall, near enough to get to in less than a second. He sat. “It’s been two months,” he said, not looking at her.

“Thank you. Thank you for telling me that.” She caressed his arm. “It must be so tiresome to stand guard at my door day after day.”

“I do what the witches ask of me.”

“Just the witches, or any woman?” She asked as she pulled back his hood. He was young, and handsome enough. He was shaking slightly. For a moment, Lilith pitied him, but she quickly focused on hiding the fear and loathing and dread of doing what she knew she had to do. It was the only way. If this young guard noticed any of her own true feelings… her hope of freedom, of seeing Benjamin again, all would be lost.

“It is the duty of any man to obey a woman. But… you are married… and with child.”

She put a finger to his lips. “Shhhh. Don’t be silly. Do you think I’m really married anymore? You know his fate—what they’ll do to him. I’ve been stuck in this room for months, I need to live again.” Slowly, she unbuckled his sword belt and silently rested it on the floor. Pulling him close, she thought of Benjamin and did what she knew she had to do.

*****

After the Ram guard had been snoring for an hour, Lilith slipped out of her bed, gathered her few things, delicately picked up the spear and the sword, and tiptoed through the archway and made toward the spiral staircase. Her bare feet felt wonderful on the cool marble steps. She could smell the scent of the desert, calling from high above.

Hearing the patter of footsteps coming down the stairs, she froze. She ducked into a niche, hiding behind a massive statue of The Lady. From here, Lilith peered out from under the black dester that was far too big for her.

The footsteps continued downward. Another destered figure appeared, working its way down the spiral stair, step by step. Whoever it was had a spear. There was something familiar in the manner of the destered figure that she couldn’t quite place. Lilith’s spear slid and clattered on the floor. The stranger’s head snapped in her direction.

“Who—who goes there?” He half-shouted, half whispered. Lilith’s heart was hammering in her breast; her breath was caught in her throat. Hesitatingly, the figure drew nearer to her hiding spot, spear raised, ready to strike. As the figure entered the shadows, it became harder to distinguish from the surrounding blackness. Yet, Lilith managed to see that the hooded head seemed to be focused upward, at the Lady, not downward, where Lilith was hiding. The figure seemed to stand transfixed, in awe of the statue. Then, it ducked its spear under its arm and darted onward down the stair. As Lilith watched the figure go, she realized why he seemed familiar.

“Benjamin!” she called.

Benjamin froze.

“It’s me!” she whispered, worried about how loud her first call had been.

Benjamin turned, gazing wonderingly up at the statue.

“No! Not there!” she admonished. “Down here. It’s Lilith.”

In the darkness behind the statue of Our Lady God, they found each other.

“I thought I’d never see you again,” she exhaled with a relief that physically hurt.

“Me too.” He tried to wipe the tears from her eyes, but ended up awkwardly poking her in the face.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She laughed. “It’s okay. It’s dark.”

A silence passed.

“How did you escape?” she asked.

“The High Red Witch… she… gave me a key.”

“Why would she…?”

“Lilith.” He touched her gently. “There’s something I have to tell you.”

“What?”

It was difficult to look at her. Her face was soft in the shadows.

“They took what they needed from me. In every way you can imagine.”

He broke down and she held him close.

“I… I tried to escape, but there was no way… I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to forgive. Not for you. But for me… there is. I had a choice.”

“A choice?”

“There was only one guard. A man. Sworn to protect me and do anything that I asked… There was only one way to get him out of the way and to get to you, and I chose to do it. I chose to be with him. To escape. To get to you.”

The pain registering on his face was nearly too much for Lilith.

“I understand,” he said. “It was the only way… These witches… It’s in the past… Only we can heal ourselves. Only we can do that.”

Despite his words, Lilith felt the gulf between them widen. They stared into one another’s eyes in the shadows, as if watching the world open up between them. Then, with a sigh, the abyss closed and the two waves crashed together again and became one ocean. The moment had passed. They were safe again. Together. Whole.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”

They scrambled up the winding staircase. The disk of overhead stars grew with each step. They managed to reach the gate without encountering a single witch. Two camels were tethered near the men’s huts, munching on straw, unguarded. Moving less than an inch a second, Benjamin saddled the camels, helped Lilith up to her mount, scrambled up his, and together, they slid through the open gate.

Thankful for their incredible luck, they urged their camels onward in stifled whispers, voyaging out across the desert sands.

*****

“You’re sure their tracking tags were inserted properly?” asked Iva as she followed Lilith and Benjamin’s progress through the desert on nearby monitors.

“No doubt. I chipped them myself,” said Alexandra. “The devices are working properly now, as you can see here.” She gestured to the bank of monitors. She shook her head and pinched her nose. “Why you thought it would be wise to let them go is beyond me.”

“I have my reasons.”

“He was the John Doe, Come Again. It’s been over a hundred years. We only took a limited amount of samples from him. If we lose contact with him, we’ll have taken a major step backward in our repopulation efforts.”

“You seem confident in your tracking abilities,” Iva sniffed. “Besides, a free-ranging cow bears more milk.”

“A strained metaphor.” Alexandra looked away from the monitors. “I think you have other reasons you’re not telling me, Iva.”

“Of course I do.”

“Well?” she whirled.

Iva sighed. “As a white witch, you believe in progress… moving forward?”

“What else is there?”

“Well, in a word… power. In two words… my power. It’s what keeps our fledgling civilization in order. What good does it do us if we have restored humanity’s numbers, but not eliminated the chaos that came to be synonymous with the end of the last age, the age of men, before the Flash cleansed the world?”

“Cleansed?”

“Certainly. It tore down man from his seat on high. Clearly, we women have already done a superior job at the helm of humanity. Eventually, word would have spread about the true John Doe, Come Again. We would have had to prop these two up as some sort of figureheads. It would have undermined our power, and therefore destabilized our society.”

“You mean, destabilized your society.”

“Yes. Is that so dark, so evil? I keep the world enlightened, strong, and orderly.”

“Perhaps you’re right. If we had accepted them, even indoctrinated them wholly, our psychologists tell us that they never would have given up fighting us. Our sociologists and futurists believe that, in the end, they would have most likely created a splinter civilization, a group of rebels inspired by their martyrdom.”

“Yes. In the end, they would have eventually been successful at wrenching away a small, yet important part of the people, and therefore, our power.”

“But what if the rebels would be right in the end? Surely, the Readings are filled with similar examples.”

“Do you realize what drivel, what craven ideology such a horde would have adopted?” Iva scoffed. “They would believe in equality—the kind of nonsense those two demonstrated during their time here: a complete fantasy based on openness, honesty, forgiveness, mutual understanding… working together toward common goals…” She shook her head, too disgusted to finish her thought.

“And what, tell me, is problematic about that?”

“Alexandra, really.” The red witch bristled. “There can be no growth of power, and therefore none of your pretty progress, so long as the daydream of equality exists.”

Alexandra tapped at her controls distractedly. “So, what will you do with them now?” Alexandra wanted to get on with it. She had plenty of work to do. Unlike Iva, she believed in what she did—plainly and simply, without cynicism.

“I’ll turn them over to you, for now. You can toy with them as you might toy with one of your little experiments.” Her eyes flicked to the monitors, then back to Alexandra. “Don’t let them stray too far. We may need them again.”

“Yes, I will. But what about repopulation? Surely, we’ll need to continue our efforts if we’re serious about re-establishing civilization. We only collected enough samples to supplement our current stock for fifteen to twenty more years.”

“We will be ready,” she said as her eyes dropped and she caressed her stomach. “Still… keep an eye on them. I may need to pay another visit to Mr. Doe.” With that, the red witch left.

Sighing, Alexandra set to work on analyzing the unique gene sequence that had re-established a genetic line of fertility in Benjamin. She toyed with the strand on her screen, marveling at it. Out of the corner of her eye, she continued to monitor the progress of the two destered figures as they fled through the desert. To her dismay, Alexandra’s hopes pushed them onward, wishing them safe passage beneath the stars.

 

An Element of Blank

by Brett Riley

 

As her father, Billy, drove the old LTD over the rutted dirt road, the two girls lay in the back seat, both of them covered in blood. River had found a ratty, ancient towel in the floorboard; she was pressing it hard onto Candy’s neck and trying to ignore the screams. Then the LTD’s back end fishtailed, tossing River to the floor and Candy into the driver’s-side door. Droplets of blood spattered the back windshield and the seats. Candy shrieked again, but it sounded weaker this time, more pain than terror, as if she were losing interest in her own mortality. River pushed herself up and grabbed the towel off the seat; it slapped wetly against her arm, leaving a bright red smear that resembled South America. She wrung out the towel, more blood pattering onto her bare feet, and pushed Candy back down on the seat. River pressed the towel to the wound again, trying to exert enough pressure to stem the bleeding but not enough to crush her best friend’s windpipe. The car hit another rut and the two of them were thrown nearly to the roof. They landed with Candy on top of River, who wrapped her legs around Candy’s waist. Somehow she kept the towel jammed against the gaping wound. Blood dripped onto River’s face.

Billy shouted, “We’re almost there! Keep the pressure on!”

“I’m tryin’!” cried River. “How far out are we?”

Billy said nothing as he yanked the wheel back and forth, avoiding the biggest ruts. The engine whined like a hive of angry bees. Candy looked pale and scared, but at least she had stopped screaming.

When the Plodders had come out of the woods between the three of them and the car, Billy had killed six with his axe while River and Candy tried to circle around. The girls had almost made it to the car when Candy tripped over a cypress knee and landed flat on her face. Before she could get up, a rogue Plodder staggered out from behind the tree and fell on her. River had seen that the thing was wearing ragged blue overalls and the remains of a once-white t-shirt before it sank its teeth into Candy’s neck, ripping out a three-inch chunk of flesh, blood geysering, spattering the cypress. The Plodder had missed Candy’s major arteries, but that mattered little. She had been bitten, which meant that she was as good as dead.

Suddenly Billy muttered, “Shit.”

River looked up. “What?”

“Runners behind us. Six or eight.”

“The patrols ain’t seen no Runners in two weeks.”

“Well, we’re seein’ ’em now. Most of em’s naked, but one of ’em’s fresh. Still wearin’ doctor’s scrubs. Hang on.” He reached into the seat beside him and picked up an old battery-powered walkie-talkie. Driving with one hand, he turned it on with the other. Static crackled over the tinny speaker. He pressed the talk button. “Jones. We’re comin’ in hot. Six to eight hostiles on my ass. We need coverin’ fire and a medic.”

From the speaker a gravelly voice said, “Roger. Be careful.”

River held the towel over the floorboard and squeezed it with her left hand. Blood dribbled over her fist and down her arm. She passed the cloth back to her right hand and pressed it against Candy’s throat. The initial gush had slowed to a trickle, but Candy lay still on top of her, a hundred pounds of dead weight. River wondered what she would do if Candy changed before they could get home, here in the back seat where there was nowhere to run and no room to fight. She tried to shove the thought out of her mind.

Her father glanced into the back seat. “Gate’s just ahead. Hold on.”

For a split second she heard inarticulate raised voices as the LTD barreled past the gate guards. Billy slammed on the brakes, the tires squealing as the rubber burned onto the asphalt. He threw the car into park and bolted out, yanked open the back door, and grabbed Candy under her arms, tugging her to the ground.

Marquis Fuqua, one of the medics, appeared at his side. Candy looked at the sky with bright and frightened eyes, her neck and upper torso soaked in gore. River scrambled out of the car and knelt beside her, brushing the hair away from her face as Marquis examined the wound. He frowned and then looked at Billy, shaking his head. River had seen him do that before and knew what it meant. Suddenly, the day seemed too hot, the air too thin; she felt as if she could not catch a full breath. Tears welled in her eyes. She blinked them away. She would not cry, not now, not when Candy needed her to be calm. She would do what she had always been taught—cut off the emotion, bottle it up and bury it. Empty the brain of everything save the information necessary to survive. From behind them she could hear snarls and growls and the slap of running feet on the road. She did not turn to look. After a moment, the guns roared, the deep booms of the shotguns and flat crack of rifles like voices arguing a point of great importance. Soon enough the guns fell silent, and the only sound she could hear was Candy’s shallow respiration.

Marquis sat back on the ground and peeled off his white latex gloves, tossing them onto the asphalt where they lay like shed snakeskin. He looked at Billy. “Runners did this?”

Billy shook his head. “Plodders. She was supposed to be our lookout, but she got to pickin’ flowers and let ’em sneak up on her. Next thing I knew, she was runnin’ like hell with twenty or more shufflin’ after her, smack dab between us and the car. We tried to get by ’em, but they was spread out pretty good. We got pinned against the river.”

“I reckon that current was still too fast to chance.”

“Yeah. I was clearin’ us a path, but she tripped at just the wrong time. Like somethin’ outta one of them bad movies we used to watch when we was kids.”

Marquis grunted and fished a tattered pack of Juicy Fruit from his pocket. He did not offer a piece to anyone else. Nobody was making Juicy Fruit anymore; the troubles had killed the whole idea of making anything, unless you counted weapons and shelters. He looked down at Candy. “Well, I don’t reckon she’ll have to worry about trippin’ no more. She’s lost enough blood to get a good jump on dyin’. Plodder’s bite’ll finish it quick.”

Billy scowled at Marquis and nodded at River. Marquis grimaced, but River did not hold it against him. He was only being honest, not treating her like a kid. If she were old enough to go out on patrol or gathering missions, then she was old enough to hear the truth. And if both Plodders and Runners had wandered back into this area, the colony would need every able-bodied hand it could get. They could not afford the luxury of watching children come of age over the years, not when knowing how to shoot or wield an ax might determine whether you grew up at all. The problem had nothing to do with the girls’ age; instead, it lay with the assignments. They never should have let Candy be their lookout. She loved plants and animals and always tried to bring more back to the colony. Once she had gathered so much Spanish moss from the nearby trees that half the compound had looked like a giant spider web. She tended to look everywhere but right in front of her, and so they should have known that she would get distracted. But River was stronger and could carry more wood, so she had gone with her father, leaving Candy alone on the dirt road. What harm could it do? they had thought. Stupid. That should have been the first clue that trouble was coming.

Now Candy would die, just like her parents had. And then something worse would happen.

River cradled Candy’s head in her lap. Candy’s eyes fluttered open; her lips moved as she tried to speak. Marquis handed River a canteen; she unscrewed it with her teeth and held it to Candy’s lips. Some of the water ran down the girl’s face, turning the drying blood into swirls and eddies of pale salmon pink. She turned her head and sputtered; River handed the canteen back to Marquis, trying not to get too angry when he held it out at arm’s length and tossed it in the nearest trash can. Dumb. He knew Candy’s saliva would be harmless until she turned.

Candy looked up at River and croaked, “How bad is it?”

River tried to smile, the muscles in her face twitching in protest as if they had forgotten how. “It’s bad.”

She would not lie to Candy. She never had, not even when she had seen a pack of Runners chase down Candy’s parents just outside the gates and rip them to pieces. When Candy had asked what had happened, River had told her, right down to the goriest detail. Candy had handled it all well, just as she was handling the news about herself. She had always been both flighty and brave.

Now she nodded at River. “Better get me to the kennels.”

River stroked her hair. “No. We can sit here a while. Ain’t no rush.”

“Bullshit. I ain’t gonna let you set here holdin’ me till I jump up and eat your face off. Help me to the kennel or shoot me right now.”

River sighed and nodded. She eased out from under Candy and squatted beside her, grasping her around the torso. Then River pulled herself up, lifting with her legs; Billy stepped over and grabbed Candy under the arms and tugged until she was on her feet, swaying like a sapling in a hard wind. River held her by one arm, afraid that she would tumble over on her face and tear open the clotting neck wound. After a moment, Candy nodded and River let her go. She did not fall.

Candy looked up at Billy. “I’m sorry. I almost got you two killed.”

Billy smiled and then patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry about that now. You want anything? Some more water or some jerky?”

“No. There’s only one thing I want. And we gotta hurry. I can already feel it. Wonder if I’ll be a Plodder, like that thing in them ugly-ass overalls.”

River and Billy said nothing. No one had ever discovered why some people became Plodders and others turned into Runners.

They all walked toward the kennels as fast as they could go, though Billy and River had to wait on Candy, who could only shuffle along like the Plodder that had bitten her. River felt her heart swell and ache as she watched; she bit her lower lip hard, relishing the pain that drove thought away. She had been through all of this before with her own mother, with Candy’s parents, with a dozen friends and acquaintances. It never stopped hurting when they changed, and it never got easier to put them down afterward. Her father had taught her to harden her heart against anything that plodded or ran after a colony member, but she had never been able to take that one last step. You can’t see ’em as the people they were anymore. You’ve gotta see ’em as the things they are. She always remembered who they had been. When they hurt or died, she hurt with them. And so for most of her life, she had dreaded her thirteenth birthday, when, according to the colony by-laws, she would be old enough to hunt, to gather, to patrol, to stand guard at the fences. To wait coldly until a Plodder or Runner wandered into range and pull the trigger. To hack off a head, to burn a body. She had done it many times over the last year and felt she could handle it all as long as she had not known the creature in life. But when she had to kill someone she had known, she always felt as if she were lopping off some crucial part of herself—her empathy, her ability to love, her dreams. She had to get past that, or she would die young.

A cloud moved across the sun. River looked at the sky, so blue it hurt her eyes. A gentle breeze played across her face, bringing with it the scent of frying meat from the mess hall. All around her, people came and went, all of them carefully averting their eyes from the little party headed to the kennels; word had spread already. Birds chirped at each other on the nearby roofs. The three of them passed the garage and the weapons storage buildings and the residences, all of the structures painted in green and brown patterns. Her father had explained that the compound used to be an army base, back before the troubles came. Now there was no army, nothing for one to protect. She had a hard time imagining a world dense with living people like ants flowing out of a mound, a world without Plodders or Runners. Every time she looked at her father, she thought of that world; he had lived there. He had seen nearly everyone he ever knew get torn apart or transform into something much worse than dead. What must his dreams be like?

They reached the kennels in back of the compound. The set of six ten-by-ten chain-link cages stood empty, each one festooned with barbed wire and windblown pieces of wilted Spanish moss, like a hellish version of the tattered garland her father hung from a sapling every December. The metal support posts had been secured in foot-thick concrete. Inside each cage, five iron bars had been driven into the slab. A thick chain had been welded to each bar; each chain terminated with a locking cuff. Candy would die here twice, chained down like a dog, as so many others had. River had never seen the kennels full; the colonists only used them when someone from the compound had been compromised. The occasion was always sad and violent, ending with splattered brains and the smell of burning flesh.

They reached the first empty cage and Candy walked inside, no hesitation. She about-faced and stood in the nest of iron bars.

“You wanna do it yourself?” Billy asked.

Candy said nothing for a moment. When she spoke, her voice shook. “I’m tryin’ to hold myself together, but the truth is I’m scared shitless. Can you do it for me?”

Billy nodded and entered the cage. He picked up one of the closest shackles and pulled a set of keys out of his pants pocket. He selected a key and stuck it in the shackle’s padlock. He removed the lock, and the shackle fell open. Candy held out her hand. He fastened the shackle around her wrist and replaced the padlock, clicking it shut. River saw Candy wince as the lock shot home, the metallic clink somehow final and damning. The cuff looked too big for Candy’s skinny wrist, but she could not pull her hand out without breaking her thumb at the very least. Billy grasped the chain with both hands and yanked on it; the post did not move. He nodded and dropped the chain. Then he repeated the process until Candy’s wrists and ankles had been secured. He picked up the cuff and chain fastened to the central post and unlocked it, fastening it around Candy’s neck. When the final lock clicked shut, he stuck the keys back in his pocket and stepped back. Candy’s long blonde hair had fallen over her eyes. She tried to lift her arm, perhaps to brush the hair away, but the chain stopped her short. She had to kneel in order to get any slack, and on her knees in that cage, concrete baking in the day’s dry heat, her bloodstained blouse rippling in the breeze, she looked like an animal headed for the slaughter.

Candy ran her fingers through her hair and tucked it behind her ears. She looked up at Billy. “Thanks. Now go. I don’t want you to see.”

He frowned. “I aim to put you down. I owe you that much.”

“When that happens, I won’t know who’s here and who ain’t. But I do now. So go. Please, Billy.”

A single tear welled up in her eye and slid down her dirty, blood-encrusted cheek. Billy stepped forward and knelt, throwing his arms around her; she patted him on the back, the chains tinkling like musical accompaniment. Then Billy let her go and stood up. He turned and walked out of the cage, heading for the barracks. River could have sworn he was crying, though she had never seen him weep, not even when her mother had turned. Perhaps a man could only take so much before he started crying late at night, surrounded by the chirping of crickets, the night watch’s soft conversations, and the low moans and growls from the things in the woods. Maybe it only started with the weeping, uncontrollable and violent, and then one day, he would wake up and put his pistol barrel in his mouth or walk out into the woods unarmed. And if it happened to her father, she supposed it would happen to her someday, too.

River had been young when her mother changed, too young to remember the woman as more than a pale moon face leaning over her at bedtime, a shock of black hair that frizzed out in even the dampest of weathers, and a voice like the tinkling of silver bells. Her name had been Courtney. River had often seen her looking out the barracks window at night when both of them should have been asleep, scraping at the wooden sill with the sharp end of an old screwdriver, but River herself had never bothered to look. People were always carving on something. Then, while on patrol one day, Courtney’s horse spooked and threw her right into the arms of a Plodder, who managed to bite off a chunk of her calf before she got away. River soon learned that the bites’ efficacy equated with their distance from the brain; if you were bitten on the leg, you changed slowly, and if you were bitten above the shoulders, you might as well chop off your own head, because within a couple of hours, you would become a growling horror. So Courtney had lingered for days, dropping deeper and deeper into lethargy, her speech becoming more and more slurred, her eyes red and watery. Finally Billy had taken her to the kennels. River had not gone with them, but she had heard the story of how her mother turned into a gibbering, slobbering Plodder who would have eaten the living flesh of anyone within reach if Billy had not put a bullet in her brain first. No one would let River near the kennels, so she had taken her mother’s old position at the barracks window, watching people drift by and wiping tears from her eyes. She had looked down at the sill and saw that her mother had carved something in uneven, childlike letters:

Pain has an element of blank
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not

River had no idea where the lines had come from, but she had read them often over the years. And she had always thought she understood them when she remembered how Billy had come home that day and sat quietly in his favorite chair, reading old books and grunting whenever River asked questions. He did not eat for three days. But he had never wept, not in her presence. And now the girl whom he thought of as his adopted daughter had been bitten, corrupted, and the bite was high. Another day had brought a fresh wound, not just in Candy’s flesh but inside them all, and she could honestly not remember a time when that had not been so.

River knew that Billy would come back to put Candy down, but if he respected her wishes, he would not reappear until after the change. He had not told River whether or not she should stay. Maybe the decision belonged to her; maybe that was part of growing up, deciding whom you could stand to stay with as they died, and came back, and died again.

She looked at Candy. The neck wound had stopped seeping. Candy had dropped the towel; it lay near her knees like a ritual sacrifice, and the wound, open to the elements, looked cavernous and raw. But it had stopped bleeding altogether, which meant that Candy’s systems were shutting down. Her face looked like old parchment; her hair strung out from her head like tufts of cornsilk. And her blue eyes appeared to be tinted with amber. Her dry lips had cracked. River felt a tug somewhere in her guts, as if she had been fish-hooked. She and Candy had planned to pull out her father’s old Scrabble game and make dirty words tonight. They had planned to sneak out and watch the dark parts of the fence, hoping a Plodder would come along so that they could throw rocks at it. They had planned to tell each other stories of the world that was, a place full of cars and people and something called television shows. But now they had no time left.

“Can I get you somethin’?” she asked. “A little more water, maybe?”

Candy shook her head, the chains rattling. “No. I don’t want nothin’ on my stomach. I’m scared it’d make everything worse. I ain’t never been so hungry in my life.”

Billy had left the cage door open. River had no idea why he had done that. She had seen him march as many as two dozen people to the kennels, and he always locked the cages. Just in case, he said. Them chains ain’t never broke, but there’s a first time for everything, he said. Maybe he had left it open because of the sound it made when it closed. One time when she was little, she had snuck out of their barracks at night and tried to get over the fence, chasing a lightning bug like it was the only creature moving on Earth. The guards had caught her and marched her right back to her Daddy, who whipped her ass with his belt and then took her down to what he called a stockade. It was a little room with a cot and a toilet and sink and steel bars for a door. He had locked her in there overnight and told her that if she ever tried to sneak over that fence again, he would leave her down there for a week. When he shut the gate, those bars had clanged like the toll of a deathwatch bell, and she had burst into tears. She imagined that when they locked the cage on one of the corrupted, it probably sounded final and cold, like that stockade door. That was probably why so many of the dying screamed and begged and insisted that they were not sick. Soon enough they would begin to curse and threaten and posture. And then they would just collapse on the concrete until they changed. Maybe Billy could not bear to hear Candy beg him for a life that would soon end either way.

River turned her face up to the sun, letting the day’s heat bake into her. She felt feverish. A rogue thought leaped to the forefront of her mind: what if she had been bitten and had not even felt it in the headlong rush from the water’s edge? She checked herself all over, pulling her clothing back even when she could see no spreading bloodstain, craning her neck back as far as she could, never able to see everything. She spun around and around like a wounded animal tramping down the grass in its den.

Candy watched silently. Her hair had fallen back over her face, but she did not bother to brush it away. Her eyes were twin pools of fire in her pallid face. She said, “Don’t worry. You ain’t bit. You’d know it if you was. It ain’t just pain. It’s like somebody’s took out your blood and filled you full of ice-water. I stopped feelin’ my feet before you got me to the car. Now I’m like one of them smooth, cold rocks you pull out of the river in February.”

River stopped searching herself. She sat down on the concrete just outside the cage door and looked at Candy, who had been her best friend ever since they were born. They had been inseparable even when all their parents were still alive. Some days, River had awakened to find Candy sitting on the bunk across from her, eyes closed, perhaps listening to the noises of the burgeoning day drifting in from the cracked barracks window. On other mornings, River would dash out the door as soon as she had eaten and sprint to Candy’s quarters, where she would leap on the bunk and bounce until Candy woke up giggling, begging for her to quit it. They had eaten together, learned to drive together by piloting an old jeep around the compound in second gear, cowered together in the barracks when their parents went out to defend the perimeter. When her mother turned, River had stayed with Candy’s family for a week. And when both of Candy’s parents were killed and eaten within twenty yards of the front gates while the horrified guards looked on, Billy had gone to their barracks and brought Candy back. He had raised her as a daughter ever since. And now this. River could tell that Billy blamed himself for all the deaths; out of all his family and best friends, only River would be left. And she had no idea how to live without Candy when every breath, every movement, every sound and texture would remind her of something they had done together.

“I’ll tell you this,” River said. “From now on, I’m not just huntin’ for food or those fuckers out there. I’m gonna take out every cypress root I see.”

Candy laughed, loud and long, but even that sound betrayed her advancing condition. Her laugh had always sounded deep and throaty, like an enormous bullfrog trying to hock up a hollow-point bullet. A bizarre sound, but one that made any joke seem funnier. Now the laugh dribbled out in a series of wheezes, like an asthmatic trying to chuckle after sprinting a hundred yards. River tried to smile at her, but the expression felt crooked and wrong. Still wheezing, Candy said, “Damn. You look constipated.”

Now River burst into laughter, a healthy guffaw that startled a bird off the top of Candy’s cage. Candy brushed her disheveled hair away from her face and smiled, and then River’s laughter died in her throat, because she noticed for the first time that Candy’s gums had turned gray. Her teeth looked as white and flat as the barracks walls. River stared at them, unable to help herself. Suddenly an image appeared in her mind—Candy’s faded-parchment face hovering over Billy’s wounded but living body, one of his arms raised in defense as Candy struck like a rattlesnake and sunk those white teeth into his flesh, blackish blood pooling around her mouth and dripping down her cheeks as she shook her head from side to side, ripping and tearing at the meat like a shark.

That’s what it will be like if we don’t do it. She won’t be Candy anymore. She’ll be one of them, a Plodder or a Runner, and if you give her half a chance, she’ll eat your guts for breakfast and your tongue for dessert.

As if reading her mind, Candy stopped smiling. “You know it’s gotta be done. Ain’t no choice. But you don’t gotta watch if you don’t wanna.”

River shook her head. “I’m gonna stick by you until the end.”

From behind them, Billy said, “Sure you can handle that?”

River turned to look at her father. His expression was blank, as if he had changed his emotions as quickly and efficiently as someone else might change shirts. His eyes looked flinty and cold. His steady hands held a .30-30 rifle. She knew he would have already loaded a shell into the chamber. So there it stood, Candy’s 7.8 millimeter death, ready to explode from the barrel and turn her brain to shapeless goo, much of which would fly right out the back of her head. The entry hole would look neat; the exit would be wide and chunky, not so different from a Plodder’s bite. And in spite of all that, River knew she would stand it. For Candy, but also for Billy. She had to stick by him at every turn from now on. Even inside a compound, surrounded by other people, no one survived for long without friends or family, something to keep you sane and grounded. Something to fight for.

“Yeah,” she said. “I can handle it.”

Billy nodded and walked over to her. They sat down together in front of the cage and watched Candy, who had closed her eyes. Her lips were moving. River knew she was probably praying. No one said anything for a long time; the sun dipped further toward the west, their shadows growing longer on the hard concrete. Candy never shifted positions; she remained on her knees, head bowed, lips moving soundlessly. The heat and the stillness lulled River into a semi-doze, while Billy sat beside her, holding the gun in both hands like a knight kneeling with his sword.

Finally River looked up. “Candy. Hey.”

But Candy did not answer. Billy was still holding the rifle in one hand. River burst into tears, but Billy did not even look at her. He was watching Candy carefully.

A volley of rifle fire from the direction of the gate made them both jump and turn away. The steady deep boom of shotgun blasts rolled over the compound like thunder. They could hear raised voices shouting at each other between shots. River looked at her father; he had raised his rifle instinctively, but now he was lowering it, some emotion rippling over his features. He glanced from the gate to the cage. Someone came running in their direction and he raised the rifle again until they saw that the figure was armed with a shotgun.

It was Marquis. He skidded to a stop in front of them. “We got hostiles at the gate! Two big packs of runners! One of ’em made it over the fence before we shot him! We need everybody there right now!”

“Where you goin’, then?” asked Billy.

“Gettin’ more ammo.”

“Bring another rifle for me. I’ll see you there in two minutes.” Marquis nodded and ran off toward the nearest armory. Billy shoved the .30-30 into River’s hands; she took it on instinct and then stared at it as if she had never seen a gun before. She looked up into Billy’s cold blue eyes. She shook her head hard from side to side, tears streaming down her dirty face. He said, “It ain’t fair, but this is the only way. It oughta be you anyway. You’re practically her sister.”

“I don’t wanna,” River whispered.

Billy kissed her forehead. “I’d spare you if I could. Maybe I’ll get back in time. If not, don’t let her live a minute as one of them things. Lock that gate right now, you hear?”

He hugged her, the gun caught between them. Then Billy let her go and dashed toward the gates, not looking back. River stood looking after him, the gun heavy in her hands. She wanted nothing more than to drop it and run after Billy, to face the Runners at the gate, to fight all the Runners in the world bare-handed, anything but take on the task that had been assigned to her. Behind her, the chains rustled and clinked. River turned slowly and looked at Candy, who was crouching on her knees. She had gone even paler than before; she might have been made out of fresh bedsheets. Even her hair had faded, looking like a centuries-old painting of blonde hair. Only her eyes shimmered with color; they were redder than before.

In a voice barely above a whisper, she said, “You remember when we was little and we used to play dolls? We’d make the boys kiss the girls, and then we’d make ’em do it, even though them dolls didn’t have no parts.”

River, her voice cracking, said, “I remember.”

Candy shook the hair out of her eyes. River saw the neck wound crack open again, but only a hair-thin trickle of blood flowed out. “I used to look forward to doin’ it. Sometimes I could hear my parents in the barracks, you know? They tried to be quiet, but them cinderblock walls—stuff echoes in there. It always sounded like work because they’d get so out of breath, like doin’ too many pushups or somethin’. But the way they’d talk to each other after… I could tell it was love. Pain too, but love all the same. I never knew you could hurt somebody and still love ’em. That love and pain might even be the same thing.”

River did not know what to say. She laid the gun against the fence, barrel up, and stood in the doorway.

“Now I’ll never get to try it,” Candy rasped. “Hell, I ain’t never even been kissed. What kinda way to die is that? Everybody oughta be kissed at least once.”

Candy burst into sobs, the sound deep and wracking, but no tears flowed. Apparently the ducts had already died, turned as cold as the rest of her body. River wanted to cry again too, but she would not lose control now. She could not. Candy deserved better than that.

“I’m sorry,” River said. “I ain’t got time to find you a boy.”

She stepped into the cage. Candy began to tremble. River rushed to her and knelt down, taking Candy’s face in her hands. It was like touching the belly of a catfish pulled from a deep riverbed, cold and somehow slimy. Candy’s blood-red eyes rolled back in her head and then snapped back in place. Her breath smelled like standing water and old moss.

River leaned in and kissed Candy, pressing their lips together, turning her head and opening her mouth just a little. Candy sucked in her breath and stiffened. Then she responded, flicking her tongue into River’s mouth, probing a moment, withdrawing as quick as a heartbeat. River held her mouth against Candy’s a moment longer; Candy slumped against her. River began to overbalance; she let go of Candy to catch herself.

Candy fell, the chains pulling her backward and rattling against the slab. Her head ricocheted off the central post and cracked on the concrete. She stared sightlessly at the blue sky. River stifled a moan and sat down, unable to move. Candy was dead. After everything they had been through, all the training and the raids and the nightmare images of teeth buried in flesh, she had been taken away by a cypress knee and one lone Plodder, a thing that walked as slowly as a baby could crawl. River felt the tears coming again and blinked hard. Then she squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her hands against them.

When she opened them again, Candy was sitting up. Her mouth had fallen open, long strings of drool hanging from her slack lower lip. Her eyes were pools of blood. She growled low in her throat like a cornered dog.

River felt her lower lip trembling, her breath hitch in her chest. She said, “Aw, shit!”

Candy sprang at her, arms outstretched, hands hooked into talons. The slack in the chains played out and they held Candy back, tearing strips of flesh off her wrists, neck, and ankles. The red muscle beneath gleamed like raw salmon. But River had been sitting too close; Candy slashed at her face, dragging long claw marks down one cheek. Drool flew everywhere as Candy whipped her head about and gnashed her teeth, shrieking louder and louder like an air-raid claxon, and River thought, She’s a Runner, she’s turned into a goddam Runner, and if that spit gets in the cuts I’m as dead as she is.

River screamed and crawfished backward toward the gate as Candy leaped for her again. The chains yanked her backward; River heard something snap like a dry twig and saw Candy’s right hand hanging backward over the cuff. Candy sat down hard, a low moan escaping her, and for the first time, River wondered if these creatures felt pain. She stood up, her back against the cage, as Candy fought against the cuffs, ripping and tearing at the chains, her high-pitched shrieks like bats’ language.

River stepped outside of the cage and shut the door. Then she fed the chain through and locked it. She picked up the gun and raised it to her shoulder, setting the end of the barrel through the chain-link fence, using it as a prop. She fixed her sight on Candy’s wildly snapping forehead, hoping against hope that she could do it in one shot.

She swallowed hard and said, “This is the only thing left to do for you. I hope you’d do the same for me.”

Candy stopped yanking at the chains and looked toward the fence. Her face slackened as if melting in the summer heat. Her hands dropped to her sides, and River wondered, Is she still in there somewhere?

She hoped not. If hell existed, that would be as good a definition as any. The tears kept trying to come; River kept blinking them back. She would be strong, like her father. Like her mother had been. Like everyone had to be, if they wanted to survive.

Pain has an element of blank, she thought.

Candy snarled again. And River pulled the trigger.

 

“An Element of Blank” was previously published in The Evansville Review.

 

Retribution

by LewisC

 

I am John-29754-B. I am innocent and yet they come for me.

I live in the white. We all live in the white. We are all named John. Except for the Host, we are all 5’9″ and weigh almost 75 kilos; we all have light brown hair and hazel eyes.

There are never more than 131 Johns. On Birth Day, the John-A of 43 years goes to Celebration. John-29754-A, John of my triad, has already gone. Celebration is death. My brothers do not know this.

We have always believed that on Retribution Day, John-B and John-C go to Celebration. Today is Retribution Day. John-C will not go to Celebration.

Once a year, new brothers are added to replace the triad that has gone to Celebration. They are young and small. They will grow. They will join us. They will learn that from birth to death, only Celebration matters.

We have computers to play music and games. We have secretly taught ourselves to read; we pass that on, triad to triad. I have learned how to use the computers in ways that were not intended. I should share that.

We eat in the white, sleep in the white, bathe in the white. The white is the only world we know until Celebration. We exist only for Celebration.

The Host is many. The Host feeds us. The Host does not speak. The Host wears white; all parts of the body, the head, and the limbs are covered. The Host does not call itself the Host; we give it that name. I know its real name. I have seen its face.

The brothers believe that the Host is different than us. They are not. The Host is many; we are many. I am individual. The Johns all look the same and speak the same but we have different feelings and different thoughts. The Host always acts the same, looks the same, responds the same. The brothers believe the Host is not an individual but a single being with many bodies. This is a theory passed down triad to triad. The theory is wrong.

Our computers are linked so that the brothers can play with or against each other. The Host never plays. I discovered that our computers can access Host computers—computers outside the white. I have accessed Host computers. I know what none of the brothers know. I should tell them but I can’t.

I discovered pictures of the Host. They are different from us but like us. The Host is not one, it is many and individual. Their skin is scabrous and scarred; their bones are weak. They are hairless. The Host calls itself Humanity. Humanity burns with hatred. Humanity has been so very angry for so very long. I could tell my brothers this but have not.

Humanity exists among the stars. I found pictures of the skies from a thousand worlds. Humanity has existed among the stars for many years. In the early days they existed amongst just a single star system. They populated space stations. They lived on planets, moons, asteroids and comets. I was fascinated to learn this.

Before Humanity reached beyond a star named Sol, a virus struck them down, seventeen billion dead. Humanity fell from the skies, dying of a fire inside the body. The virus rewrote DNA. The virus in the secondary generations caused uncontrolled tissue generation, cancers, and porous bones. The virus was created by a single madman. I am not that madman. I am John but I am not John.

The Madman John was caught and executed in his 43rd year. One death was not enough for John. Twice a year, Humanity celebrates the death of John. John’s painful death is broadcast to the stars for all to see. From the computers, I learned of a place called Hell. It’s where evil burns for eternity. What is evil?

The Host Celebrates the execution of John. He is executed by his own virus. He slowly burns from the inside out. Humanity will make him burn once for every life he took; an eye for an eye. Seventeen billion Johns will only take 8.5 billion years. Humanity will be angry for a long time. Celebration is death is retribution.

I could tell my brothers this; we could pass it from triad to triad. We would know that we live only to die for retribution. We would know we are madmen. We would know we will burn. Would our lives change with that knowledge? For brothers A and B, no. But what of C?

I learned of C’s role from the computers. C only exists in case sickness or accident takes A or B. When A and B go to Celebration, C is disposed of. Neck snapped, thrown away with the garbage, invisibly rejected. No broadcast of his death, only disposal; no retribution, no justice, no Celebration. Where is hell?

I cannot tell my brothers of this. They will ask questions. C is dead, this morning, from a terrible accident. John-29754-B will receive retribution. Retribution is a noble cause; being garbage is not. I cannot explain how C died. I can never say. What is existence if not Celebration/retribution?

I am John-29754-B. I am innocent and yet they come for me.

 

Clinker

by Jay Mark

 

The asphalt flats were baking from the sun’s fearsome fire, and as far as Aldaire could see, there was nothing but a flat, dark, burning plain. Even in the midst of a cloudless afternoon in the middle of the summer, the uniform black ground made it seem darker than it was. Waves of heat cooked the air to a hundred and twenty degree inferno. Her light blonde hair became a heavy burden soaked with sweat, and it clung to the back of shoulders as she limped forward; every drop of perspiration hitting the ground sizzled before evaporating to nothing. The skin on the back of her neck was velvet where her hair had parted. The knees of her light brown slacks were stained with small traces of tar. Her left side was dirty, and her torn sleeve revealed a severe elbow abrasion riddled with grains of black. She took a misstep from exhaustion and her ankle gave out; she tripped, scraping her open elbow across the asphalt oven. She rolled over onto her back with a scream, holding her elbow as she sat up. The ground was menace, clothes were like a thin pot holder against the surface of a hot pan. It vibrated, then changed consistency, becoming softer, almost gooey. She knew that her ability to suppress the asphalt was waning, so she jumped up and ran swiftly despite a slight limp from her throbbing foot. She didn’t want to be tar food, even if it was only a matter of time she was determined to fight to the end. The tar pit chased her, a boiling, bubbling, gurgling pit of gooey, viscous tar that wasn’t selective about its meal. Its bubbles grew larger than a human head before they popped with a stinky hiss of oily air. Arms of tar waved for her as she ran. And she kept running, without a care for the precious water that beaded off her brow. A hope of salvation came in the form of a white speck floating steadily in the air; she put her hand above her eyes and squinted. It had to be man made, even the hardiest bird of prey couldn’t survive out on the asphalt plains, so she waved tiredly, continuing to run in that direction, until she could see that it was a long white blimp that came to blunted points at aft and bow. Clinker Corp. was spelled in large black letters on the synthetic fabric of its sides, and it carried a complex underbelly stretching its entire length, from the propeller driven rudder, to the pilot’s cabin at the forefront.

* * * * *

“Drop another sonar boom; I’d like to get a reading here,” Tray said.

Larox refused to budge, he kept his feet propped on the instrument panel, and the straw of his water bottle in his mouth.

“Give it a rest,” he said, biting his straw. “We’ve been at it for five hours. It’s too damn hot to keep working like this.”

Tray kicked his swivel chair across the room. “Damn it all to hell then! I’ll do it myself. They’d decommission this damn blimp if we’d all take your stinkin’ attitude.”

“Relax,” Larox said, “Everyone knows I’m the only one here with my attitude.”

“If you weren’t such a damn good gunner, I’d have thrown your ass overboard a long time ago and let the asphalt get a taste of it,” Tray said, getting in Larox’s face.

“Watch the personal space, Tray,” Larox growled.

Tray leaned back respectfully, then went to check the scope. Miles and miles of blackness numbed the eye. He mumbled something about how hard it was to believe that the country below was ever free soil.

“One of these days I’ll do it,” Tray said to himself, though making a point of having it heard. “Larox won’t even know it’s coming till his ass is tar food.”

Larox just laughed, “I’d like to see you try. Hey, what did they call this area again, before I was born?”

“How the hell am I supposed to know,” Tray said, “Lauren, keeps track of that kind of stuff.”

A door from the back slammed open and then shut again as Lauren entered from the crane room. Her gray polyester work suit was stained with oil, floor grime, and hydraulic fluid. Her brown hair was pulled back as tight as possible into a large bun above the back of her neck. It was a dirty, reeking ball soaked with all the putrid chemicals that powered the crane, and a fair share of oil and sweat. She slapped her name tag because it was peeling off.

“Someone call?” she asked.

“Yah,” Tray said. “Larox wanted to know what this part of the parking lot used to be called.”

“What are the coordinates?” she asked

“Last I checked we were running 99.61 long and 38.74 lad, somewhere around 350 miles south from were we came,” Larox said.

Tray shook his head in disgust. “That was fifteen minutes ago.”

“We’re over the middle of Kansas; in fact, Hill River used to be right around here. This is the land my grandparents farmed, so I should know.”

“Free soil farmers.” Tray said, “Not much to farm now.”

“How would you know what they did?” Larox asked Lauren, “You weren’t even born.”

“My parents told me stories—about the world they knew as children, before they built the parking lot.” She placed her eyes behind golden-hued telescopic goggles mounted to a swivel post at the edge of the bridge, and took a long look at the darkness below. “I don’t recognize this world. I’ve known it all my life, and it’s still strange to me.”

She saw something moving below, a tiny figure in the distance, so she adjusted the goggles for a more detailed view, keeping the object in sight as well as she could.

“How can that be?” Lauren asked. No one responded to her question because they thought she was being rhetorical. “There’s someone out there!” Lauren said. “There’s someone alive down there!”

“You’re hallucinating,” Tray said, “Take a closer look.”

“Probably too much sun in her eyes,” Larox suggested.

“I’m serious,” she said. “It’s a person—running toward us.”

“You gotta be kidding!” Larox protested, butting past Tray and pushing Lauren aside to seize the goggles, ignoring both their protests.

“Don’t see a thing,” he said calmly.

Lauren adjusted the viewer and Larox’s head with it, not bothering to be gentle.

“We gotta do something before we drift out of range,” Lauren said. “Have Horst get a bearing on her position so he can lower the crane.”

‘“I’ll go down,” Larox said,

“What the hell is this!” Tray hollered, “I’m the captain here. I’ll give the freakin’ orders.”

The door out of the interior cabin slammed shut and the others were gone before Tray could protest any further. The sounds of the opening hatch and the crane’s clinking chains were heard along with the hum of the motors that controlled them.

“There they go again,” Tray muttered. He went to the cockpit and yelled at the pilot. “Horst, some girl is wandering the flats. Check your scope, and take this baby within range of the lift.”

There was no response from Horst, whose cockpit was littered with empty water bottles. Horst leaned back over his seat and navigated the wheel with his feet while keeping his hands behind his head. A pair of headphones blared his favorite rap songs directly through his ear canal. Tray pulled the headphones off and pointed to the cabin door.

“I’m taking over the controls,” Tray said, “Man the EM pulse cannon. I want you ready to assist if the asphalt activates.”

“Wha-?” Horst said. “How we supposed to get the goods without opening things up down there first. Sounds ass backward to me.”

“There’s no treasure,” he said. “This is a rescue operation.”

“Someone’s down there?” he said, looking out the window. “Out here? That’s crazy. There’s no way someone could be down there.”

“Well someone is, now get to your station before I throw you down after her.”

Horst turned from the door with a jerk. “Still don’t believe it…”

“Now!” Tray screamed.

* * * * *

The asphalt melted around Aldaire’s boots, clinging to them as a sticky tar that held stronger with every step. She waved desperately at the blimp, hoping its crew would care enough to pluck her from certain death. She fought until she couldn’t free herself from the tar, but continued waving as the blimp grew larger. It was sailing to her, and a crane was lowering. Larox called to her, and he reached for her hand, but missed. Meekly, she lifted her head and squinted. The blimp was circling, and the crane going lower, but the asphalt wasn’t going to give up its prey easily; a pool of hot tar had formed around her position. It was drawing her in slowly. The blimp was like a giant white whale lowering its head as it swam towards her from above, and Larox on the crane looked like a cowboy on an iron seahorse. He called again, and came so close that she reached upward as he approached. The blimp caught a wind and lifted before he was close enough, and he had to go upside down to reach her, hanging on to the hook of the crane by his legs.

“Grab my arm, you can do it!” Larox yelled, but the blimp couldn’t stay long enough for her to manage it, even though the propellers were off and the captain was attempting to stabilize its position. Larox threw off his boots, pulled off his black jeans, and tied their legs to the crane before hanging with one hand from the pants themselves. She was within reach of his foot, but only looked up tiredly, as if finally resolved to her fate.

“Grab my foot, damn it! I’m trying to save your life.”

“I can’t,” she whispered.

A gust of wind forced the blimp back up, and suddenly a twenty-foot drop was beneath him. Larox climbed back up his pants, untied them, and slid them back on.

“One more time,” he yelled. “Tell that dumb-ass to let Horst pilot, and you put the hook on the ground if you have to!”

The third time was a charm, Larox lifted Aldaire by her waist as the crane swooped past, and she clung to his shoulder.

‘“A flower in the tar,” Larox suggested casually.

She didn’t respond.

“Bring it up!” Larox yelled.

An arm of asphalt extended from the earth, wrapped around Aldaire’s ankle, pulled her from Larox’s grasp, and swung her forcefully.

“Shit!” Larox yelled, jumping from the crane and catching the coil of hot asphalt, sliding downward as if on a greased pole.

A canister fired from the blimp hit the asphalt formation dead on with a wave of electrically charge water. The asphalt released Aldaire. Larox caught her. She pushed herself up, but when Larox tried to lead her she fell against the asphalt. She cried over her badly swollen ankle.

“Hop on,” Larox said, lifting her onto his back.

The crane approached, for the blimp was burning its fuel to work against a prevailing breeze. There would only be a matter of seconds in which the crane would be within reach, a brief window of opportunity. The ground shook as geysers of hot tar burst around their position.

“We’re getting out of here, trust me on this,” Larox said.

The crane was only a few feet away when the ground started rolling in tidal patterns, and it was inches from the tips of their fingers when the tide got the best of them, knocking them into a tidal chasm. Larox pulled Aldaire close and slung her over his back again, but he couldn’t keep step with the tide. They were rolled away from the blimp unmercifully as the asphalt softened yet still delivered blows and abrasions. The blimp launched three more canisters, and the asphalt abated enough so that Larox could get to his feet. The crane was coming his way from the opposite direction.

“Here goes,” he said. “Can’t take much more of this.”

Aldaire clung to Larox with all her power as he grasped the hook with his sweaty palms, which were slowly slipping as the hook was raised.

“Lower, lower,” he yelled, “I’m slipping.”

He looked down to Aldaire, who wasn’t moving.

“Can’t you climb?!”

She didn’t move.

“I can’t pull us both up. You have to climb,” he yelled.

Fortunately, Lauren had heard him and lowered the crane until it was dragging on the ground. Larox was able to fall off without getting hurt. Once they were on the ground, arms of asphalt slapped them both before wrapping them up like a snake squeezing its prey. Aldaire’s eyes lit fiercely. She pounded the asphalt coil with a fist that was lit as by a blue fire. The coils cooled, turned blue, and broke into a thousand small pebbles. Larox and Aldaire sat bewildered, but free.

“How’d you do that?” Larox asked.

If she had answered him Larox wouldn’t have cared, for a searing blob of tar sucked on his right hand. He screamed before pulling out his sizzling red flesh. Blobs of tar formed around them. Geysers of black gunk shot forth. A pool of boiling tar claimed Aldaire’s boot with such tenacity that she couldn’t pry it loose. Larox shook his red, welted hand, and pulled her stocking clad foot from the boot before she was sucked beneath the tar with it. His feet were burning, as his heavy stockings weren’t enough to combat the ground’s heat, but he waited patiently, holding her on his back as the blimp made another approach. A huge canister was dropped to neutralize the asphalt. When it hit, an electro-magnetic pulse wave spread, and the asphalt disintegrated to reveal a circle of flat, gray, bedrock. The blimp’s turbines burned for the fourth pass overhead, while it continued to fire pulse canisters that kept the asphalt at bay. The chain scratched the rock as it approached, for the blimp was at an exceedingly low altitude and flying very slowly against a strong wind. Larox knew Horst was back on the pilot’s seat as he sat Aldaire on the chain.

“Hold on tight,” he said, as the crane lifted her up. His hand was so badly burnt he didn’t even bother trying to hold on, even though the asphalt was reclaiming what it had lost. He laughed as he saw the sole of one of his abandoned boots floating in the wall of tar surrounding him. There was a half-smoked cigarette in the back pocket of his jeans, but he had nothing to light it with, so he flicked it against the asphalt. The blimp circled tightly as the asphalt recovered. Horst managed to get back with enough time for him to grab the hook with his good hand. It was a close call, there were only inches to spare when the hole in the asphalt closed beneath his foot.

* * * * *

The sleeping cabin had two bunk beds at both sides of the wall. At the front was an arm chair with a portable television sitting on its cushion. A small freezer sat on the metal floor next to the left bunk. The only cooling system was a small, metal ventilation fan in the ceiling. Aldaire sat on a bunk as Lauren wrapped up her ankle. Larox sat on Tray’s bunk at the other side of the room and tied two cold wraps over his burnt hand with some tissue and an old cord. Tray sat on the sofa, watching Aldaire suspiciously.

“All tied,” Lauren said, “That should hold you until we get back to Mandaree.”

“If we get back to Mandaree,” Tray sighed. “That double loop Horst performed to rescue your sorry asses cost us too much fuel.”

“Forgive us, oh great one,” Larox said stoically.

“How in the world did you get out this far into the asphalt flats?” Lauren asked Aldaire. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous to be wandering around down there?”

Aldaire looked down at her ankle silently.

“More like deadly,” Tray said, playing with the buttons on the television. “I never heard of anybody getting this far out without becoming pavement food. Someone must have dropped you out there. Do you have any idea who?”

Aldaire stared at her foot blankly.

“What the hell is wrong with you? Can’t you hear?” Tray yelled.

“Relax, Tray,” Larox said.

“Don’t pick on her,” Lauren protested. “She’s had it rough enough.”

“He wouldn’t know that, though,” Larox snickered. “He’s still setting records for stupidity.”

“That would be impossible, because you hold the unbreakable title,” Tray growled.

Larox turned to Aldaire.

“Hey,” he said, “I rescued you and you haven’t even told me your name.”

“Aldaire,” she said softly.

“Aldaire, heh, that’s a pretty name. Sounds a lot nicer than Lauren.”

“Hey, what’s wrong with my name?” Lauren protested.

“Nothing in particular,” he said, “just kinda heavy on the tongue.”

“I’ll show you heavy,” she said, batting him on the head before leaving the sleeping quarters.

* * * * *

A stifling breeze blew through the open windows of the deck as Larox leaned outside, casually watching the awful scenery. The sunset was upon them, looking like a huge egg yolk over the surface of a hot griddle as it sunk into the black horizon. Larox sighed at his bandaged hand, happy that the pain was killing him, for that meant he probably would get to keep all of his fingers.

Suddenly, Tray’s boots thumped against the metal deck behind him.

“All our fuel and ammo is gone,” he complained, “We don’t have anything of value to present to the corporation; no treasure, no metals, no soil, no water, nothing. We’ll be damned lucky if they don’t fire us. And that’s if we’re lucky enough to make it back.’”

“Relax,” Larox said, “we’ve been good to them; besides, where else are they gonna find such a professional crew?”

Horst and Lauren entered simultaneously from opposite sides of the deck.

“The wind’s favorable for a return to Mandaree,” Horst said. “I think I can manage it.”

“See that,” Larox said. “Things always seem to work out.”

“Yah,” Tray said. “Well, one of these days they ain’t.”

Tray looked toward Lauren, barking at her, “How’s the girl doing, she all right?”

“She’s asleep,” Lauren said. “I thought I’d come out here and take some time for myself, but seems everyone else had the same idea. I’m gonna clean off a little bit of this grime.”

“One pint of water!” Tray hollered, “And not a damned drop more!”

“Want some company?” Larox asked.

“You both need to get real,” she said.

“We don’t got any treasure this time,” Horst said. “What’s up with that?”

“It’ll work out,” Tray said. “Haven’t you heard the news? We’re freaking heroes now.”

“Oh,” Horst said complacently. “Heroes, I like the sound of that.”

“Yah,” Tray said, as the last of the sun boiled away from the asphalt. “Heroes. Too bad we can’t save this world of ours.”

“It’s too late for that,” Larox said. “Nothing can save it now.”

 

Thirty Years Later

by Chisto

 

Alan awakens to a cold wind. The sweat beads that cover him bring him chills. Fading images left over from his night terrors dance behind his eyes. He squeezes his eyes shut tight in an attempt to blink them away. His head is killing him. It’s becoming a regular thing now. Every day a hammer slams repeatedly on his temple. He thinks it’s going to drive him crazy.

Sitting up, he spots David sitting in front of a crudely constructed fire. Alan watches the man. He doesn’t seem to even know that any eyes are on him. His back is to Alan. He rubs his hands together over the fire he threw together. Alan shakes his head, watching him. He can’t figure out how David has survived this long.

Shaking off a chill, Alan stands up. Stepping over the stones, rubble, and remnants of what once was, Alan makes his way to David and the warmth of the fire. “You’re awake,” David says, glancing up at him.

Alan just nods. “I’m going out again tonight,” he says taking a seat in the dirt, across from the other man.

“Where this time?” David asks. His tone used to be just uninterested. Now it bares inflections of annoyance.

“There’s a cave west of here, past the dump site. I have to see where it leads.”

David buries his face in his hands. He massages the growing tension from his eyes. He doesn’t need another headache. He’s been getting them every day lately. “Unless you think there might be food in this cave, I don’t see the point.”

Alan puts his fist to his mouth. He stares off at the landscape. It wouldn’t be as bad, he thinks, if there was nothing left, but that’s not the case. He is never allowed to forget. Everywhere he looks, in every direction, there are scattered pieces of civilization. The carnage is a daily reminder of all that he’s lost. How can he just start over, and worry about surviving? How can he worry about what he’s going to eat, surrounded by this devastation? He can’t. He doesn’t know how David does it. If he didn’t think that he’d go crazy with no one to talk to, he would have left on one of his explorations and never come back to this campsite they’ve set up. The conversations are becoming less fulfilling with each new day. He’s beginning to not care about the luxury of having company any more. All he cares about, is getting far enough to see what else is out there, to see if anyone else has survived. It’s been so long since he’s seen anyone other than David. His flame of hope has almost been extinguished.

“I know it’s been a long time, too long, since we’ve had anything real to eat,” Alan says, making eye contact with David. “Maybe there will be food there. I am hungry too. Don’t think I’m not. I just… I know there’s others out there somewhere. If we can find more people in this… this… twisted landscape of memories, maybe we really can start over.”

David stands up quickly, too quickly. The blood rushes to his head. He wobbles a bit, light headed. When he regains composure, he gestures around him with both arms. “Are you still asleep? This is it. It’s all gone Alan. Everything, and everyone we knew is gone. It’s been thirty years since the death of our world. Now unless you plan to lie down and die, we need to make the best out of this new world. We need to find where we can go to get food, and shelter when it rains. We can’t spend our days searching for people that aren’t there. If we do, we will join them in the afterlife Alan. I personally, am not willing to do that.”

Alan jumps to his feet. He storms past David, and marches over to his stuff. He keeps a blanket and some things he’s gathered in his searches. “What’s the point?” he says back to the other man. “Giving up hope, to live like this is pointless. This is not living. I’m going to that cave. If you want to come, then follow me. If you don’t, then… well… don’t.”

Alan digs out the map that he has worked hard on for years. He adds to it every day when he gets back, jotting down what he has found. He has a record of miles in every direction. He stands up and points to a spot on the map. “Here,” he says. “The cave is here.”

With a sigh, David approaches him. He’s not going to argue. He doesn’t want to fight with the only other person alive. “Let’s go,” he says.

With a nod, Alan grabs a rusted section of pipe he uses as a walking stick and sets off. The whole area is littered with pieces of buildings and cars, homes, and those that didn’t make it. It’s a giant obstacle course. David is younger than Alan. He was only a kid when the world was destroyed. He is in much better shape, and doesn’t need a walking stick to cross the rough terrain.

Alan stops in his tracks after what feels like hours. He’s not sure. He hasn’t seen a clock in decades. “What is it?” David asks from behind him.

“It’s just always hard when we get to this point.” Alan frowns. He chokes down a sob, but he can’t keep the tears from escaping his eyes. He won’t turn around. He doesn’t want David to see his tears. He sighs, and begins to make his way forward, one step at a time. They are at the dump site. When They came, and destroyed the world Alan loved, They picked certain areas to dispose of the dead. This place is the largest unorthodox cemetery that Alan has seen. The bodies are piled high in every direction. There are so many. So much death. They are not much more than skeletons now, but if he strains hard he can see them all as he saw them when the devastation first occurred. With a deep breath, he picks up his speed. Now he’s gotten over his moment of grief, and the creepiness of the area has set in. He just wants to get through it and out, and fast.

“You alright?” David asks him.

“Fine. I’m fine.”

That is the end of the conversation. There is not another word said. The sun comes up, and both men are still crossing the cursed valley of death. At least the sun takes away the sting of the night breeze. Alan’s body aches, and begs him to stop, but he won’t, not this time.

“Is that it?” David breaks the silence, and reaches his arm past Alan pointing forward.

“Yes. That’s it.”

What used to be an ancient and beautiful forest of trees, is now as much a cemetery as the land they just crossed through. The vegetation didn’t fare any better than the humans. Neither did the animals. Both men have feared starvation for some time now, but Alan doesn’t like to discuss it as often as David would like to.

Just past the threshold of the one-time forest, lies an opening in the ground. The first time Alan found it, when he was by himself, he initially thought it was caused by an explosion, but further inspection told him that it was dug by men. During the death of the world, there must have been someone that thought they could tunnel underground to stay safe. Being as all Alan found inside was a shattered skull he can imagine whoever dug the hole did not fair as well as they had hoped.

“We walked all night for this. Let’s go in,” David says.

Alan doubles over, resting his hands on his thighs. He pants heavily. “Not yet,” he says. “I need to rest.”

“There could be food in there,” David tells him. “I’m going in.”

“So go,” Alan says. “I’ll catch up to you.” He doesn’t tell the other man that he knows exactly what is down there already. He has a plan. He’s going to succeed in finding others and restarting civilization, with David’s help.

With a nod, David drops down into the hole. Alan waits a couple of minutes. Then he follows behind him. Just as he was at the fire last night, David pays no attention to what’s behind him. Alan approaches as quietly as he can, and raises his pipe. He brings it down swiftly on the back of David’s head. The man doesn’t even cry out. He just crumples to the floor, like his batteries ran out. Alan slams the pipe down a few more times to make sure the job is done. “Now I’ve got food and shelter from the rain,” he says to David.

He feels bad that he had to take a life, but there was no other option. He is willing to deal with the guilt. His cause is noble. David was hopeless anyway. If Alan didn’t do it, they would have both died soon enough. Alan has his map as proof that there is no food for miles in any direction. Starvation was inevitable. The thought of eating a human being disgusts him, but he’ll have to find a way to deal with it.

After his first meal in what feels like forever, his stomach twists and turns, angry with him. He grimaces as he struggles to keep the food from rising back up. He can’t afford to get sick. His food is limited. He will camp out here for now and venture further in every direction, updating his map with his discoveries. He is excited about exploring new areas. He is confident that the source of hope he’s dreamt about for thirty years is out there. He will find it. Unable to calm the anger of his stomach, he rests on the cave bottom. The ground is cold and uncomfortable, but he is in no place to complain. He survived the death of the world.

It doesn’t take long for Alan to fall into a deep sleep and drift back to his nightmare memories of the day They arrived. He sees in his mind’s eye the destruction of his world, like it happened yesterday. As he has everyday, for the past three decades, he wakes up shivering, laced with cold sweat, as the visions still dance a maudlin ballet in his head.

He does his best to shake them off, and gets to his feet. He contemplates trying to eat some more, but decides it best to save the little bit of food he now has for when he’s really hungry. He will live longer that way, even if his stomach never forgives him. He grabs his walking stick that served it’s purpose as a messenger of death, and tosses it up out of the man-made cave. The he finds secure handholds and hoists himself out. Retrieving the pipe, he heads out into unknown territory.

It all starts to look the same to him after awhile, nothing but broken memories everywhere. This depresses him. He can’t think like that. He just hasn’t gone far enough yet. He pushes onward, his muscles straining, and aching with the effort. Eventually, he comes to an area scattered with fallen buildings. One by one, he explores each, and every time, he comes up empty handed. The only thing he finds is more death and destruction.

He starts to feel beaten. He plops himself down on the ground. Maybe David was right all along. Maybe they were the only ones left, and if that’s true, than he is now alone. With no one to hide it from anymore, he lets the sobs come. He screams, and shakes, and cries his heart out. He releases years worth of pain that he had been bottling up inside. Then he sees it. He forces his tears to halt their passage, and wipes his nose with his left arm. He wipes his eyes dry with his right, to assure that he can see clearly. There it is again. Up ahead, in the distance, a light shines. Light means life.

In an instant, he is up on his feet and running. He leaves his pipe behind, and takes off, hurdling obstacles, like he is young again. He is rejuvenated by hope. He did it. He found others. After all these years, all these lonely years, he finally found them.

The source of the light seems an impossible distance away. His legs burn and threaten to give out but he refuses to let them. He pumps his arms, his breathing labored. His foot catches on the rib of one of those that didn’t make it and he tumbles forward to the ground. He hits hard sending a shock of pain through his own bones, but he is immediately up and running again.

There it is. He’s made it. He comes skidding to a halt in front of a huge glistening structure. It shines like metal, but looks like flesh, veins coursing through it. On the top of the living metal structure, there is a blinking beacon, the source of the light he saw. His legs finally give out on him. He falls to his knees, and struggles painfully to catch his breath. It seems an impossible task.

He looks up at the source of the light, and tears make their way back into his eyes. His eyes burn with their arrival. He knows this place, or at least others like it. He’s seen it before, a long time ago. That was when he saw it in person, but he has seen it every night in his tortured dreams. This can’t be. They all left after they killed his world. They swept through, destroying everything in their path, and were gone again, just like that. Yet, right here in front of him stands one of their vessels. No.

A door opens in the giant pulsing metal structure. Out of the passage come three men, if they are men. They stand as tall as the trees that once inhabited this world. Their flesh is as black as ink, and shines like chrome. Aside from the glowing amber of their eyes, they are void of color. They look to Alan like shadows with the features of men.

“The beacon lured another one,” one of them says. They learned the languages of this planet as quickly as children learn playground rhymes. They needed to express the hopelessness of the situation to the planet’s inhabitants so they would understand. They are merciless, wicked creatures, and Alan is spent. His body doesn’t have the strength to get up and run again. This is the end of the line for him. It was all for nothing. Thirty years. Thirty years he survived, and for what? He starts to wish he had died with the world.

“We still can not leave,” another of the shadow men says. “We can not move on until every last one of them has been disposed of. There are still others lurking about.”

Alan’s eyes grow wide. His mouth drops open. What did that thing just say? There are others. He was right all along. They weren’t the only ones. There are people alive out there somewhere. He starts to laugh. His laughter becomes hysterical. The shadow men glide to him, and he doesn’t even see them move. It doesn’t matter. He can’t stop laughing. Their long dark arms reach out for him, but he just laughs. Their hands clutch him, their fingers digging in deep, and he laughs, and laughs, and laughs, as they steal his life. With one last burst of hysterical laughter, Alan joins his world.

 

Kvetch

by Ken Kash

 

As I warm my hands next to a fire of burning hair, I remember the purity of days past. I remember the sun warming my face, playing in the mud after a storm, and smelling the fresh air of the mountains. Now the world is dark and cold. The air we breathe burns our lungs. The survivors are all here, the underground city of Kvetch.

Nuclear winter came and nearly eradicated the human race. Many of the survivors walk around in a daze, not sure of what happened to us. But me, I am cursed with knowledge and remembrance. The dazed are the lucky, I on the other hand, pray for death from an unforgiving god.

My now deceased parents took cosmic genes and made an entity. I was a raw hunk of clay made from the earth with potential to be of use to this world. Now I’m underground, a piece of clay covered in mud, swarmed by insects. Acid drops from the ceiling of the tunnels.

Kvetch is a reeking, vomitous, putrid place. Our torture is living pointless unproductive lives. We eat one meal a day. The meal is the remains of the recently deceased. The meal is less than raw. We don’t have much time left.

I am still an unmolded piece of clay. For the last month I have been searching for something—anything to accomplish. I had a thousand doors open to me before the war. Now I fear I have only two. The first door is death. The second door is a possibly impossible dream. The second door has a dim light to achieve one thing in my life. I will be the last!

* * * * *

I was born June 1, 1985 in Baltimore, Maryland. My parents kept a copy of the paper from the day I was born. The paper said the high temperature was 85 degrees. A cool breeze traveled east to west.

Mis parientes me daron todo el mundo. I loved my parents. I was an only child and my parents took great care of me. I always wished to be great someday to honor them. My parents raised me in a comfortable environment. However, they also exposed me to those less fortunate. We always did charity work in the inner cities from Detroit to Cleveland to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, D.C. and Baltimore. I knew how lucky I was.

I graduated from high school in the National Honors Society with a 4.0 grade point average. I spoke English and Spanish. I could have gone to any college I wanted with a 1450 SAT and my dad’s money. I decided to go to a small school in North Carolina, just north of Wilmington, called Conquest College.

By my junior year, 2005, the world was in turmoil. Tempers flared between Russia and China. Mexico was in upheaval. Brazil was on the verge of civil war over abuse of power by politicians and police. Violence in the Middle East was at an all-time high.

Things got worse in spring 2006 when Fidel Castro died. Not two but three leaders sprung up to take control of Cuba. The United States got involved by funding the democratic leader to finally get a democratic government in Cuba. Many people didn’t agree with the policy. But there was money involved, tourism to think of, and people to be bought.

At the time, all third world countries were in anarchy. The UN pulled all troops due to the AIDS epidemic. This decision forced African nations to fend for themselves. Most of Africa was unruled and out of control. Borders vanished and gangs took all control.

In early September, Iran launched chemical weapons on Israel. Millions lost their lives. The chemicals choked many to death and literally melted the skin off their bones. North Korea took a page from Japan’s secret biological warfare experiments of WWII They dropped bombs on Moscow and the rest of Russia. Inside these bombs were millions of fleas carrying bubonic plague. Russia was slowly dying.

Due to popular demand, the UN countries pulled all troops out of the Middle East. Only months later, the populations of those countries was down to thousands, due to war and chemical warfare. Russia, Asia and Europe were crippled with plague. The quarantines couldn’t be mobilized fast enough.

Through all the fighting the United States stayed strong. Schools kept on teaching, factories continued producing and taxes were still being paid as the Earth crumbled around us. We thought our space defenses would protect us. They didn’t. Death found a way.

The Agitation of the Aggressors, the day the Earth shook in space, took place September 17, 2007. The Agitation of the Aggressors came as not so much of a surprise from whom, but from where blew our minds. In the early morning, nuclear bombs were sent towards fifty major cities in the continental United States by international terrorists grouped in Canada.

The bombs hit. New York got hit at 6:13, Washington D.C. at 6:15, Los Angeles at 3:25. Our missile defense systems returned fire across the world.

Our bombs finished the job of total annihilation in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Mexico and Canada. Volcanoes erupted throughout the world, completely destroying South America and Africa. Tidal waves buried the islands under the sea. Earthquakes shook the world as Antarctica and Australia were shattered like bone and fell into the oceans.

Meanwhile, my roommate knew of a secret underground city near Sallisaw, Oklahoma. He claimed the city could hold 500,000 people. First come, first served to the underground city of Kvetch.

I arrived at Kvetch at 11:36 PM. I was one of only 62,530 people who made it. We are the last on Earth, if you can call living underground on Earth.

The city, still in the early stages of construction, was not ready for inhabitants. The cement was still drying when we arrived. Rations were short. The generators weren’t properly fueled.

We did what we could in the beginning. During the first few months, we worked day and night to make the place feel like home. But once the radiation passed over us, all our work was for not. Acid leaked into the city, making most of it uninhabitable.

We sealed the city and all lived in a commune of sorts. For unknown reasons, the cement was deteriorating at an impossible rate. Walls were falling, the air turned to soot and we were running short on edible food. Worst of all, the generators were failing. Hell was becoming a reality.

* * * * *

Since we arrived, I have been trying to keep track of time. I figure by now it’s December 2015. I’ve lived underground for eight years now. It’s time to do something with my life.

The generators have been silent for years. At first we burned clothes for light and heat. When we ran out of clothes, we shaved the hair off of our heads and bodies. Now we burn unused portions of corpses.

A few months ago I made my goal. The plot circled in my head like a vulture. Once convinced, I felt no grief killing the remaining 2,053 citizens of Kvetch. Not one of them was my friend or relative. Everybody looks the same—naked, hairless, and covered in mud. I considered my actions mercy killings.

Kvetch has no children. After three years of living underground, mating was abolished. The lead council decreed this when people still had their sense. We figured it impossible to return to the land, so mating would be considered an act of cruelty. Besides, no child born within the first three years lived past the age of five.

The night before I started the slaying, I sharpened sticks and planted them in different caves. I also had softball-sized rocks. I went to sleep an hour or so before most. In two hours I woke. I murdered the biggest men first. I struck while they were sleeping. I had never hurt anybody before that first night. I killed two hundred men by the end of the first night. I stabbed through hearts and bashed in brains. No one even woke. I had a feeling that my victims didn’t mind. They lost all hope years ago.

Over the first week I killed 1,400 men. A few times people awoke; but they didn’t say a word. A few extra dead bodies meant more food for the rest.

During the last few years females have been dying off more than men have. The only possible explanation is that their poetic and beautiful souls couldn’t stand the ugliness. I envy them. I look forward to my death as the last human soul on the planet.

I killed one hundred women a night over the last six nights. Fifty-two women were left for the last night. The women didn’t know I was alive because I no longer slept. I hid from them as they shuffled through the piles and piles of dead bodies. The final night, most women were awake as I drove stakes through their hearts as if they were vampires. They welcomed death.

Finally I came to the last woman on Earth. As she lay sleeping, I noticed she was not like the others. I thought she was the most beautiful creature I have ever seen. Even with a shaved head and mud covering her body, she looked beautiful. She looked to be about thirty. She had a strong jaw and high cheekbones. Her body still possessed all of its natural curves. I had forgotten how beautiful women actually are.

I wanted to speak to her before I was finished. I woke her. As she looked up at me I stared into her sad and lonely eyes. I spoke to her.

“Ma’am, my name is Tom Lombardo; I am the last man on Earth. What’s your name?”

“It’s Carrie Lernoux,” she replied. Her voice was soft with a trace of a Southern accent.

“Nice to meet you, Carrie Lernoux, the last woman on Earth. You know when I was younger I used to kid with girls and ask them if they would mind if I was the last man on Earth and she was the last woman on Earth. Now that seemingly trivial joke is a reality. You are the last woman and I am the last man. Do you mind?”

She replied, with a smile, “I remember that game. I even told a few guys ‘not if you were the last man on Earth.’ But now it doesn’t seem funny.”

“I know. It’s a shame, it really is. I wanted to do so many things with my life. Before all of this, I just graduated from college. I was looking for the perfect job. Even through all the turmoil, I wanted to see the world. I wanted to speak every language and learn every custom. I wanted to help develop the economies of third world countries. My mother was from Argentina. I visited once and the majority of the people were so poor. I’m sorry, I’m rambling.”

She placed her right hand on my cheek. “Maybe it was all meant to be this way. Maybe, after we die, something will give us comfort.”

A brief silence followed. She broke the silence. “You know, some people say that when you die you just go in the ground. If that’s true, we were dead long ago.”

Even through all of this, the woman was still kind. I could see it in her eyes. She was still gentle; I could feel it in her touch. I asked, “Carrie, what did you have planned for your life?”

She let another smile escape her lips. I noticed her full lips. I assume she, too, had the world at her fingertips when the end of the world came upon us. She said, “Me? I was just beginning my career. I was an elementary school teacher. I loved my kids. I know it sounds cheesy, but I thought if I could just make a difference in one child’s life, then I would have felt accomplished.” Tears started streaming down her face. “But I never got that chance. I had just started my first full year with my own class.

“I was engaged to a gentle man, a humble man. We were going to get married, have children and live happily ever after.” She was trying to avoid sobs from overcoming her as she continued. “He was one of the first to pass in this place. He became ill and died the day before we were to be married. He shouldn’t have died.”

I dropped my stick and placed my hand on her cheek. I said, “If my calculations are correct, I think it is day out on top. I was planning to see the world one last time before the deathly air takes my life. I’ve always been a romantic.”

She shifted her eyes back and forth and said, “Tom, in the last ten years I have seen everything and everyone I love die. Now I’m the last woman on Earth and I don’t want to be. So please, I beg of you, end me as you have the others.”

She rolled onto her back, closed her eyes and spread her arms. I stood, slowly raised my stick and threw it to my side. I accomplished the only thing I could. I am Tom Lombardo, the last man on Earth. I wanted someone to share the end of mankind.

I said, “No, I’m not going to kill you. I want you to come to the surface with me. You are so beautiful, so kind, so gentle, I can’t kill you. I want to spend my last minutes with the woman who signifies everything good that once was. Carrie Lernoux, I would be honored to have you join me.”

She opened her eyes when I was done speaking. She said, “I accept, Tom Lombardo, last man on Earth.” She took my hand and we walked together.

* * * * *

I’m ready to die now. I will go to the surface and let the scorched sun take my life. I will watch as the symbol of woman and man meet their end. We crawl to the door through which we came over eight years ago. The door has not been opened since. As I open it, dirt and ash pour in, almost burying me. I am completely exhausted as I crawl out and reach the surface. I help Carrie out of the cave. We put our arms around each other as we prepare for the end.

The sun is so bright I can’t open my eyes. As we sit on the ground we feel two impossible things. First, the sun is not burning my skin. Secondly, I feel… I open my eyes to see… I see… grass! It can’t be! Wait, I hear something. I try to focus my dilated pupils three or four hundred feet ahead of me. It’s people! Impossible! We are not the last. Why? How?

I give up. I roll on my back, close my eyes and feel the sun warming my face. I feel my heart slowing. Carrie shakes me and forces me to open my eyes. Again, she puts her hand on my cheek. But this time I am the one lying and she is above me. She says, “Tom, don’t give up, stay with me. The Earth has healed. When we came out of that cave we were reborn. We can help rebuild this world into our own little heaven. Thank you for not killing me, there is hope.”

As she is speaking I see the sun over her head. She is like an angel, trying to save me. I reach up and place my hand on her cheek. My head rests in her lap. She is saving me as I spared her. One thing still bothers me.

“But I killed all those people. I don’t deserve to live.”

She replies, “But if you didn’t, no one would have made it out of that place. We would have all died down there. Everything happens for a reason; and remember what I said about being a teacher. I wanted to make a difference to one child, one person. Be that person for me, let me save you.”

She smiles down on me and I can’t refuse her.

 

Nutria

nutria

Illustration by S.C. Watson

by Johnny Eponymous

 

Viruses are strange and daring things. Neither animal nor plant nor fungus, but far more destructive than any of those, or even all combined. They can infect anything, make them bend to the will of RNA strands that command “slash and burn!” It seems only right that a virus should bring the end to all life on Earth.

This timeline marks the end of the reign of man, that precious bookkeeper whose records become the only applicable history. It happened as such during a long Indian Summer, a few years after the world assimilated the agony of menace against monoliths. Unlike the visions of writers or directors, the end of the world was neither explosive nor complete, but the slow letting of air that flattens tires over a long road trip. A virus killed the inhabitants of a planet that considered itself to be the only destination for intelligent life. That virus came from intelligence, or perhaps it was the greatest intelligence of all. At least that’s what those dying humans needed to think; that their downfall had come about through a sinister plan by a superior mind.

Billions of visits to doctors’ offices around the world signaled the beginning. The vegetarians began to show first, wasting away on wheat gluten and steamed broccoli. Thin, though they would continually eat, nothing would become energy, nothing absorbed into the body. The commune members who would sneak hamburgers managed better, held the hands of their more headstrong friends as they wasted into immortality, shoveling plates of God’s Bounty between withered lips. It took nearly a year to discover the trouble, to locate the virus that prevented man from absorbing vegetable matter.

The university men should have seen it when the cows began to thin even with constant feeding, when the last hummingbird died. This virus chose a wide path, through man and beast and pest and fish. The oceans were lifeless in a year, the skies clear a few months later, save for the carrion that thrived and slowly faded as nothing was left to die.

Human survived longer than cockroaches. Everywhere in the cities, where bodegas and supermarkets had been raided for cans of corned beef hash and abalone, millions of cockroaches had wandered into the street. They tried to extend their lives by feeding on the dead birds, the dead men, their dead brothers. After nineteen months, the last man in New York City starved to death, a week after the last cockroach had gone on. Hong Kong had already been abandoned, and Berlin had become more desolate than an Old West studio set when filming had wrapped. Europe’s last man, a cannibal named Henry DeGlane lasted three and a half years with the virus in him, dying of food poisoning after eating a far rotten woman he found floating in the Seine. The last news reports had speculated that the virus came from comet dust, or Saddam’s pre-war biological labs. No answer ever came, no vaccine, no solution other than the death that allowed worms to make a run at some survival.

In Louisiana, the delta of the Mississippi outflow, an animal called the nutria splashed and swam and ate. A rodent like a beaver with a possum’s tail, introduced from South America, had been eating the Bayou vegetation for decades. They had been popular for alligator feeding at roadside five-dollars-a-photo farms. “You can lead an alligator to water if you have nutria on a stick,” said the guides before they starved. The alligators still in the bayou had survived. The families that lived on the edge of the swamps survived as well.

The millions of nutria in Louisiana had made it through, eating and digesting roots and shoots as they always had, unaffected and happily multiplying faster than the alligators could bite them, than the traps could swing shut, than the women and children could skin and gut and cook them. The last remaining proof that life had once run wild across the planet existed on the edges of dug-waters: a few cats and dogs, a couple of dozen humans, some vultures, a hundred or so alligators, small colonies of ants and worms, and several million nutria.

And of course, myself, watching it from the porch of an old hunter who could never stomach the taste of nutria. “Off-chicken,” he called the flavor, even when sauced for days in his iron skillet. I’d been watching since I found the gathering of my distant cousins, chewing on roots and shoots, not noticing the lack of man on land. I may not have their advantages, but I’ve written this and it will likely be the last telling of the fall of the world. I doubt the folks of the White Lightning shacks would, or even could, read my explanation for their position as Omega Men. Even with all my knowledge of the fall, I wonder why my coat isn’t as glossy as my swimming brethren; if there will be enough food for all of us once my superiors discover the ideal conditions of Earth, the scent of the water.

It doesn’t matter much, but I take pause and stare back over my notes. I’ll enter the water and take my fill, hoping that the virus in my blood doesn’t finally make its way to the nutria, cutting off the lifeline to the few who remain.

Because, honestly, who wouldn’t feel guilty if they were listed as the cause of death for every living thing on Earth?